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Building your Cross-Cultural Competence: Why Upskilling Your Team is a Good Idea

Building your Cross-Cultural Competence: Why Upskilling Your Team is a Good Idea


Karen has proven herself as a successful project manager, eager to take initiative. Her fast-paced work style and quick decision making has earned her lots of buy-in from senior management, as she continuously shows result. But Karen is struggling with her newest project to roll-out a new product line to EMEA and APAC. Her team doesn’t seem to value her approach and constantly questions and (in her eyes) hinders the roll-out. Was it really such a good idea when her manager proposed to bring on team members with a diverse cultural background?

The struggle Karen is going through is not unique to her situation. Multinational organizations are shaped and driven by their goal to operate successfully in a variety of markets and cater to a diversity of cultures. When the Institute for the Future (IFTF) of the University of Phoenix examined six disruptive shifts that will reshape our future work landscape, the researchers highlighted the demand for adaptability and diversity due to an increased global interconnectivity as one main driver of change (IFTF, 2011). It is therefore not surprising that cross-cultural competence was named one of the top 10 work skills of the future.

Gallup found that we are more engaged at work, when we feel included, cared for and our ideas considered (Gallup, 2016). Lacking the understanding and appreciation of differences in values, behaviors and thinking styles will result in lower engagement between team members, lacking trust, and potential conflicts. The old saying “Treat others as you want to be treated” is no longer valid. In Karen’s example, her approach of moving fast and adjusting along the way made others feel overwhelmed and not able to provide the valuable input they had to give. The question we should ask ourselves: How can we navigate these multicultural situations personally? How can we as leaders ensure the success of our diverse teams?

Spend more time building trust

Whether you are a project team member or the leading manager, in order to build an inclusive team culture, we all need to patiently take a step back to ask questions and listen to the answers. Our communication and action is often built on assumptions and stereotypes. When working with a multicultural, diverse team  avoid falling into the trap of unquestioned assumptions and distancing team members. Trustworthiness is a good example: In very few culture, people assume that trust is a given (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway) . They’ll worry about getting to know team members when the work has begun. In most regions of the world, however, you absolutely need to build the relationship to your team members before you can trust them (e.g. Brazil, Saudi Arabia). This may be one of the reasons why multicultural teams that exhibit high levels of social distance (i.e. you don’t know much about each other) are known to be less effective when interacting together (HBR, 2015).


In order to bring out the best in each team member and value their unique perspectives, it is helpful to visualise and discuss each colleague’s thinking and communication style. There are many tools available, and some organisations often already administer tests as part of their leadership development programs (e.g. MBTI, Insights, DISC).  Use the results to kick start a conversation about differences.

While we do well in assuming positive intent in our actions, the behaviour might come across as rude, aggressive (in Karen’s case, for example), timid, shy, or offensive. The more context one can give on why something was said or what was meant, the easier your counterpart has it in seeing the value. For example, some cultures are very comfortable with silence as they prepare to speak or offer ideas (e.g. Japan, Denmark, Korea). For those that come from a culture where silence is uncomfortable, it might be worthwhile to understand why their team members are silent. They are simply still thinking about their answer.

Self-Awareness and Role Modeling

Every (cultural) change starts with us. If we want our team members to value and care more for each other’s input and opinion, we also need to adapt our behavior to reflect that change. As a leader of a multicultural team, it is vital to build a common vision and goal, but empower team members to decide how to best get there.

Cross-cultural competence means that we have the knowledge, skills and motivation to understand and engage with people from different cultural background effectively.

Those from more hierarchical cultures (like China, Saudi Arabia) will seek more guidance and your input, while others (e.g. Australians, Germans) might benefit from less frequent check-ins. You might be able to give constructively critical feedback to one team member.  Another might prefer you to package it more indirectly in the form of a story. As a team norm and culture starts to emerge, less adaptation to individuals might be necessary. Team members will have become accustomed to the jointly formed “common ground”. But in order to truly reap the benefits a diverse team can bring, we need to start evaluating our own behavior first.

Back to Karen: She decided to take on a coach to help her expand her leadership capabilities to build a more inclusive multicultural team. She realized that her communication style might have bulldozed over some of the team members, even though she never meant any harm. During the past weeks, she has had individual chats with each team member about their career ambition and their preferred work style. The results are beginning to show: the team might spend longer in a meeting now that everyone speaks up, but the product roll-out for China and the Middle East would have overlooked costly localization mistakes if she hadn’t been able to count on her diverse team members.

Dearin & Associates provides cross-cultural consulting to companies operating in the Middle East and North Africa, Iran, Indonesia, Malaysia and China. register here to find out how to build up you Cross-Cultural Communication Skills for Business. 

To find out how we can help your team, visit our site.  

If you are a small or medium-sized business looking to find a structured pathway into fast-growing international markets, check out the International Business Accelerator (IBA) coaching program here.

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