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Global team building: Seeing things from another perspective

2nd Jun 2008
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Global unityHow do you unite global employees from various cultures, with different ideas and working styles? Jeff Toms says cultural awareness training can help create a more harmonious team.

Throughout history wars have been fought over cultural misunderstanding and mis-communication. In the working environment many companies expect employees to 'simply get on with each other' and ignore the inherent differences of team members when working with colleagues from a variety of national and cultural regions.

With teams of employees increasingly being drawn from diverse backgrounds, how can a situation be created where each diverse employee's contribution is maximised for the good of the whole organisation?

The majority of organisations – and rightly so - devise policies and procedures to ensure there is no discrimination between employees from different cultural backgrounds. However, to implement such procedures and expect staff 'to simply get on with each other' does not automatically create a productive working atmosphere.

Photo of Jeff Toms"Surface similarities may initially encourage colleagues to believe that everything is going to plan when in fact an iceberg of hidden differences is waiting to sink the ship."

This approach tends to lead to many issues of mis-communication and therefore an overall reduction in productivity between colleagues. Because of cultural differences, one employee's interpretation of how to achieve a specified goal is not necessarily shared by team members. Surface similarities may initially encourage colleagues to believe that everything is going to plan when in fact an iceberg of hidden differences is waiting to sink the ship.

For example, take the clichéd American corporate executive who is direct, factual, and to the point. His clichéd German counterpart may also be direct, fact-based and to the point. But differences will begin to surface throughout a project.

For the American the approach to a goal might be: start / correct / try / correct / act / abandon / start again / act / correct / succeed. For the German it might be: gather facts / dissect logically to reduce risk / reduce uncertainty / commit to plan / perform detailed work / finish. When the two styles clash there is no conscious appreciation of the other's perspective, which leads to misunderstanding, frustration and inefficiency.

If cross-cultural project teams are to create a harmonious and productive working environment, the key is to encourage staff to recognise differences and gain a greater understanding of them. If executives can then begin to anticipate and adapt to these differences in style by just five or 10% more understanding, the result will be a greater degree of productivity and more successful outcomes.

The first step towards this is to appreciate that an employee's own culture is largely invisible to him or her. Employees should be encouraged to look at their own culture and instead of assuming their way is the only way they then need to consider 'otherness'. When working with people of different origins they must acknowledge that within the world there is an infinite variety and diversity of people and corporate behaviour.

Some examples include: strict timekeeping is likely to be impossible to implement in Latin countries. Direct criticism of staff in front of others in Asian countries will cause the recipient embarrassing loss of face and the use of indirect language to soften the impact of what is being said will be met with annoyance by Germanic people who prefer a direct approach.

"A small investment to improve the understanding of culture and communication through specialist training can make the difference between a successful, profitable and productive assignment and ineffective, long term struggle."

The second step then is to encourage staff to see cultural differences for what they are: potentially different values, assumptions, expectations and behaviour which people bring to business as a result of their different collective experiences. These collective tendencies reveal themselves as individual differences. In this way, members of a team don't represent a 'culture' or particular ethnic group - they simply represent themselves.

The outcome is a recognition that different perspectives will result in alternative ways of handling particular situations. Cultural differences then become opportunities to improve communication and evaluate new perspectives on how to achieve particular business objectives.

A small investment in a programme of intercultural training will help achieve the goal of cross-cultural awareness between colleagues. The training itself should be interactive and open, involving exchanges of ideas, experiences and issues among participants. Perceived differences should also be recognised as being just as important as real differences, as it is these perceptions of others that actually give rise to reactions and judgements.

A small investment to improve the understanding of culture and communication through specialist training can make the difference between a successful, profitable and productive assignment and and ineffective, long-term struggle.

With the increased use of technology and ease of global transportation it has been said the world is 'getting smaller' and this brings many advantages to business. However, the challenges must also be appreciated and one of these is the growing need for executives to work with cultures unlike their own. If this is approached in a positive, proactive way that recognises difference - with the appropriate training - organisations can take advantage of the contributions an increasingly diverse team can bring. However, if cultural differences are ignored then only mis-communication, frustration and failed projects will result.

Jeff Toms is the director of marketing & client services at Farnham Castle. Farnham Castle is an international briefing and conference centre, specialising in cross-cultural management development programmes and international assignment briefings for every country in the world, in addition to those coming to live and work in Britain.

For more information go to www.farnhamcastle.com or call: 01252 720406.

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