Fixing common challenges with cross cultural commnication

Working in settings where diversity is prominent, is a great experience to have.

You have a chance to experience new perspectives and insights.

However, to be able to roll in these riches, open communication is a necessity.  Colleagues must be willing to share, for sharing to occur.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen that easily.

Here are a few situations where challenges can arise during cross-cultural exchanges in the workplace, along with ways to overcome them, suggested by Ginka Toegel (Professor or Organisational Behaviour at IMD Lausanne) and Jean-Louis Barsoux (Senior research fellow at IMD).


Getting Ideas

Interaction and participation in the workplace is different for every culture.

Employees from more individualistic and egalitarian countries like the U.S.A, are more open to expressing their ideas, whereas people from hierarchical cultures, like Japan, wait for senior coworkers to voice their opinions. People from other cultures may be wary when it comes to revealing their thoughts because they worry about looking shallow or silly.

Patterns of communication can also prove to be an obstacle.  While some cultures prefer more methodical patterns, others are more comfortable with interruptions and overlapping conversations.

To fix this problem, you can better guarantee everyone’s contribution by having clear communication conventions.  Here are some interesting strategies to facilitate interaction:

  • Go around the table at least once, so that everyone has a chance to voice their opinions.
  • Ask open-ended questions, without providing your own thoughts first, so as not to influence responses beforehand.
  • Adopt a “four-sentence rule” to limit talkative members, giving everyone time to jump in respectfully.

Surfacing Disagreement

Differences during disagreements can be one of the biggest roadblocks in cross-cultural communication.

People from cultures that place importance on public image try to avoid confrontation for fear of social discord. Other cultures believe that having an open argument is a sign of trust.

Furthermore, different cultures contrast in how much emotion they show and expect from others during a debate.  Body language is also different in different areas of the world, so miscommunication can happen.

To remedy the possibility of unhealthy disagreements, here are a few methods to encourage healthy debate:

  • Designate someone to play devil’s advocate to consider and prompt discussion of the trials and tribulations linked to different perspectives. This methodology can show people that debates can be healthy, which can bridge the gap between cultures.
  • Go around and ask each person for a pro and con on a particular matter, so that everyone gets to argue both sides and learn that different perceptions do exist.

Providing Feedback

Constructive criticism is an important part of teamwork. It can help understanding and alignment in areas such as communication style, behavior and punctuality.  However, that can be a tricky minefield to navigate.

Different cultures see criticism and feedback in different ways.

The U.S. and similar countries see it as an opportunity for personal growth, but people from relationship-oriented, collectivist countries may not be used to voicing their critiques in public – preferring to share in private, informal settings instead.

Hierarchical cultures may not believe that it is their job to offer advice to team members, and prefer to leave that task to superiors/leaders.

Language used to give criticism varies as well.

Here are a few ways to bridge the gap when it comes to feedback:

  • Teach people to soften negative feedback by framing it in a positive manner and/or to provide it to the whole team instead of singling anyone out.
  • Lead by example and model any techniques you would like your team to use.

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