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Is your team culture-smart & what can you do about it?

Written by: Richelle Matthews, COO
September 10, 2021

Remote work, global teams, and cross-cultural interactions have increased dramatically in the tech industry, especially post COVID. This is not about hitting a diversity target, it is about finding the best people in the world for your company and scaling quickly.  But what happens when you are not getting the productivity you expected from the “other” team? For example, when you provide feedback on project changes you don’t notice any modifications.

Curious to understand why your communication might not be resonating with your global team?

First let’s start with something we all have in common: the brain!  What is going on in your brain and the brain of your colleague when communicating cross-culturally?  Welcome to the world of the neuroscience of intercultural communication.

What is culture?

Culture is defined as the collective mental programming that distinguishes one group of people from the other. Collective programming in a culture influences thinking and patterns of behavior exhibited by behaviors such as the importance of time, or an individual's needs over community needs, or social hierarchy (Hofstede).  This does not mean that every single person in a culture thinks the exact same way, there are differences within the individual’s thinking process. It does mean that cultural experiences do impact how people process information.

Examples of cultural differences

Daily experiences in a culture are deeply embedded into our brains. A few examples: in the U.S, if you're looking for a discount you would search in the sales section. This may differ from an individual from a marketplace culture where negotiations are used to achieve a discount. Using a negotiation tactic in a U.S store would result in an uncomfortable interaction and the social cue that negotiation is not the norm.

Or what about all the social protocols around coffee meetings, asking someone to meet, what to say, the amount of personal information to share, and who pays?  In many cultures, the “coffee meeting” is not how business is conducted.

Even simple interactions like where to sit on a bus can require brain retraining. In Canada most people would never sit beside someone; they would always leave one seat in between if the bus wasn’t full. In countries such as India the expectation is on the bus you are squeezing in due to limitation of space.

In each circumstance, there is a collective cultural programming around how to act and people conduct themselves within those informal rules.

But what if you don't know the rules?

When you are in a new culture it takes a lot of brain retraining to learn how to act in a variety of social settings, this creates a lot of white noise for the individual as they are focused on “how to” interact, shifting their focus away from workplace productivity.

“I speak English, you speak English but we are not speaking the same language”

To get a bit more scientific, here is a key study that highlights how the human brain is developed or altered based on frequent cultural experiences in an environment:

Two neuro-cultural researchers Denise Park and Chih-Mao Huang studied how people in Western (individualistic-oriented) vs. East Asian (community-oriented) cultures process information. People from Western cultures process information based on a central object, and then have rules and categories to sort through information. East Asian cultures process information more holistically, with the central object and context being equal, resulting in a relational way of thinking.

So how does this play out in daily life?

In many East Asian cultures, it is not socially acceptable to challenge or question a boss’s authority. There are multiple reasons, but the most powerful are social hierarchy and fear of causing disharmony in the group. The individual would consider “how does this behavior impact the group and my relationship to the group?” The relationship and context for the relationship is the primary focus - not the task.

In a Western context, we accept and in fact, we encourage people to question a boss or colleague. Gathering information drives the thought process and asking a boss for clarification contributes to completing a task.  The primary focus is on achieving the task vs. the relationship.

Task or relationship orientation is a massive difference that needs to be addressed when working within these two cultural groups. When people work within their home culture they understand the rules and the nuance of these rules, across cultures people can feel like they are not aligning with their international colleagues.

Accelerate peak productivity with simple hacks

Neuroplasticity (big word needs explanation) is the concept that you can change the shape and size of your brain by doing different things.  You can in fact train your brain to work productively across cultures.  

Here are three simple starting points to build new neural pathways in intercultural teams.

  1. Use Google - “workplace norms __________” (insert country here).  This should be done by both global teams.  It is the responsibility of ALL parties to educate themselves and their colleagues on workplace norms.  You can learn a lot in a 10 minute Google search.  This can give you insights into how to give feedback in that cultural context that will lead to results.
  1. INVEST in cultural upskilling focused on feedback - dynamic, insightful, and interactive training can make your team more productive and competitive.  Not only will you learn about your colleagues but you might actually realize that intercultural teams have an advantage, very rarely are tech companies building a product for a homogeneous group of people, harnessing cross-cultural insights and strategies to give feedback will help you build more robust products. Again teams on both sides of the ocean should participate, the goal is to understand one another.
  1. Team operating principles - everyone is coming to the table with a different set of cultural rules and norms.  It’s no different than playing a board game, do the work upfront to understand the social norms everyone is playing by.  Establish processes that allow groups to give one another feedback, this could include one on one meetings or sending out the information by email before a meeting so people can email in their question.   This is a collective task to form ONE team, not one group setting the rules for the other group.

Intercultural teams can be an asset or a liability depending on how they are structured, managed, and scaled. Investing time and energy into how to do that effectively will ALWAYS pay off by reducing communication challenges, increasing productivity, and building more robust products.