Work in international teams


What cultural diversity brings along

People & stories, 06.03.2020

An IT specialist from India, a production designer from Spain and an engineer from Germany – for many companies it meanwhile is quite usual to have staff from every corner of the world. Cultural diversity promises creative and innovative ideas, but can also be challenging.

Work in international teams

A meeting in the marketing department of a German enterprise. The team leader criticises a graphic designer’s advertising strategy – it does not correspond to the originally expressed wish, so a new proposal needs to be found. The person spoken to, a Frenchman, is devastated. The fear of doing something wrong again paralyses him, and he expects to soon get fired. For the German team leader, on the other hand, it was a perfectly normal meeting, and the idea of firing someone in such a situation wouldn’t even cross her mind.

“This example shows how quickly we can find ourselves in the middle of an intercultural conflict,” says Alexander Reeb, who set up an institute in Göttingen to train companies, organisations and individuals in intercultural skills. “This is because, in Germany, we use direct communication. We even express critical things very openly, because we assume that it’s about the matter, not the person. However, from a global perspective, we are pretty much on our own in this aspect. The risk of us stepping on someone’s toes in an international team is therefore quite big.”

Globalisation also connects and networks people in the workplace. Either the colleague at the desk across comes from a different culture, or you get transferred abroad due to the company’s expansion. Similarly, there are virtual teams that overcome geographical borders by using video chat, WhatsApp and email. It’s no wonder that intercultural skills are now considered to be a key qualification. But how people from different countries communicate with each other has to be learned.

Communication about communication

Intercultural skills trainers differentiate between cultures, based on the directness with which members of those cultures interact. The direct communication widely used in Germany stands in contrast to the indirect communication of many countries – especially Asian ones, in which open confrontation tends to be avoided in favour of harmonious coexistence. But the French, the Spanish, the British, the Swiss, the Austrians and the Russians also prefer to express criticism cautiously.

Who has twiddled with the Clock?

Except for language, there is hardly anything that distinguishes cultures as much as their sense of time. In Central and Northern Europe, as well as in Anglo-Saxon cultures, people experience time as measurable and linear – this is called a “monochronic sense of time”. Punctuality is accordingly highly valued in the western world.

The situation is quite different in collectivist cultures with a polychronic sense of time. Deadlines are seen as a rough guide, and work processes and the people involved in them are considered to be more important. Alexander Reeb: “Imagine that you’re in a meeting and have reached a decisive point but, officially, the meeting is over. You don’t end the meeting, however, because you give priority to the process. You then arrive too late at the next meeting, of course. But as a member of a polychronic culture, you would also allow more time for the next person and, if necessary, work overtime in the evening. Unpunctuality therefore doesn’t mean a some-what more lax attitude to time. It simply means that priorities may be set differently.”

“In cultures with indirect communication, meetings in which a colleague’s performance was called into question in the presence of others, would amount to a loss of face. Instead, a team leader would catch the colleague before or after the meeting, first ask how their family was doing, praise them copiously for the work they had done, and only then carefully slip in some criticism, says the ethnologist and lawyer Alexander Reeb. “Only when the personal relationship is already significantly damaged, a boss will speak very plainly – and then dismissal is actually not that far away.”

How does international collaboration work?

Team leaders who prefer to dress up their criticism in flowery language and others who really rub it in to get the message across – how are these supposed to join together in an international team? Especially combined with other things that are also difficult to grasp. Eye contact for example. Germans quickly see not looking at the other person during a talk as a lack of interest. For members of some African cultures, however, avoiding eye contact is rather an expression of respect for a person of higher status. And in Nordic countries, it’s usual to maintain a greater distance between associates than they do in countries of the geographical South. The other extreme can be irritating in each case. “However,” explains Alexander Reeb, “here we’re dealing with behaviours that are deeply rooted in culture. You can’t simply say: just forget about that in future!”

According to Reeb, an international team basically has to be built up in accordance with the standard rules of group formation, which require an orientation phase (“forming”), a conflict phase (“storming”), a regulation phase (“norming”) and a performance phase (“performing”). On top comes the development of intercultural skills. Here, the values and norms of the other cultures represented in the team should be imparted with the help of country experts. For this, there are some practical exercises in which the participants learn how it feels when, say, the personal but culturally determined proximity zone is not reached or is exceeded. “People are first of all made aware of specific topics. The second step is then to look at how the knowledge acquired is integrated into your own team. Ultimately, the team culture will be largely geared to the country where the company is located.” And even after a team has been set up, you still have to stick to it – through process-related coaching sessions for staff and managers.

Despite every intercultural skill, according to the intercultural coach, you should never forget that you are not only dealing with representatives of another country but with individuals who each have their own personal history. “Also in international teams, it’s certainly never wrong to perceive people with their previous experience and current needs,” Alexander Reeb is convinced.

Three tips for international collaboration in teams

1. Give yourself plenty of time in the start-up phase

It’s worth allowing plenty of time to acquire intercultural skills and get to know the individual team members. External intercultural trainers can be a wise investment. To simply think, despite diversity, that “everything will be fine – at the end of the day we’re all the same” leads to a dead end.

2. Clarify the expectations!

Deal intensively with your own expectations and those of others. How do these expectations fit together? How can communication or communication about communication help to unite these expectations? In the case of international collaboration in teams, you need to pay particular attention to the subject of “expectations”.

3. Utilise the full potential of your international team colleagues!

Working with people from different cultures can be extremely rewarding – both professionally and personally. Anyone who has the chance to do so should be open to the exchange of ideas and become familiar with a foreign approach. It’s worth it.

This article first appeared in German on the zeit.de website on 24 October 2019.

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