Diverse teams have the potential to deliver far greater performance than homogeneous teams, however, a number of measures must first be in place to improve communication and a number of other key factors, according to an expert in cross-cultural communication.
Diverse teams possess multiple perspectives and can deliver greater innovation and performance – as long as they have systems for resolving conflict, explicit working agreements and inclusive leadership practices – where every voice is heard.
If these measures are not in place, research has shown that diverse teams can often slip to lower than average performance, said Karen Cvitkovich, president of Mosaic Global Solutions and an expert on cross-cultural communication, leadership and performance.
She stated that cultural differences can be leveraged as potentially the greatest asset of an organisation in terms of striving toward innovation and high performance.
However, she observed that the success of organisations achieving effective communication across cultures and diverse teams varies greatly.
“Often this success coincides with experience and awareness of the cultural differences,” said Cvitkovich, who recently spoke at the Indeed Interactive conference.
“For primarily domestic organisations or organisations that have recently expanded internationally, I find there are lots of challenges as they expand their way of interpreting behaviour from their international counterparts.”
A really simple but very impactful example of this is when does “yes” really mean “yes.”
“Having an accurate assessment of whether or not a team or individual is going to meet a goal is critical to business,” she said.
“And yet, when a simple question like, ‘Will you get it done on time?’ is asked, the answers can range from ‘yes’ to ‘it will be difficult’ to ‘I will try my best.’”
Knowing what follow-up questions to ask is important and interpreting the response to assess status is vitally important.
“This should scream ‘no’ to you; your ability to interpret this and ask follow up questions for a more accurate assessment of status is critical”
“If the person who you are asking comes from a less direct culture than you and says, ‘I think so, but I have a few small concerns.’
“This should scream ‘no’ to you; your ability to interpret this and ask follow up questions for a more accurate assessment of status is critical,” said Cvitkovich, who has worked with clients and partners on global projects across more than 40 countries.
Common cross-cultural challenges
“Everywhere in the world I have traveled, I find people want the same three things,” said Cvitkovich: they want to be listened to, understood and feel respected.
However, the challenge is that often the behaviours they look for in order to feel these things are different depending on the country and culture they came from.
Cvitkovich gave an example of this from an Israeli/US team she worked with and explained that the diverse teams were really struggling.
“There was low trust and productivity. Employee engagement was low. I was asked to come in to improve team performance,” she said.
“The very insightful Israeli HR manager asked me an important question. She said, ‘So you are here to improve the level of teamwork – right?’ I agreed.
“Then she asked the important question, ‘So, if teamwork improves will the level of conflict go up or down?’
“Feeding right into her question, with my American perspective, I answered, ‘Well, it will go down and performance will go up.’
“’Well’, she answered, ‘for Israelis – if the teamwork is good – the conflict goes up because we trust each other so much we know that if we challenge and disagree, the trust will be maintained and our outcome will be better.’
“In my experience, that is the most common challenge – we want the same things, respect, understanding, listening – but the behaviours are different,” said Cvitkovich.
“In fact, if in your communication you stated the obvious, it may even be seen as a bit condescending”
The difference between high and low context communication
Two countries that have a very significant gap in the dimensions of feedback and context are the US and Japan.
The US is one of the lowest context cultures in the world, and Cvitkovich said that many feel this is because it is considered an immigrant country.
“We don’t share a common background or understanding about things, so good communication needs to be explicit and clear,” she said.
“In contrast, Japan is one of the highest context cultures in the world.
“As a small, relatively homogenous and island population, people share much history and context in common.”
This allows them to have good communication that is nuanced, layered and sophisticated.
“In fact, if in your communication you stated the obvious, it may even be seen as a bit condescending,” said Cvitkovich.
“So, in the US we use many words to say just a few simple things.
“In Japan, they use few words but the meaning is deep and the expectation is that the receiver of the communication will interpret the ‘hidden’ meaning,” she said.
For feedback, a good example of contrast can be found in the US and France, and Cvitkovich said that communication in the US is somewhat direct, and certainly moreso than most Asian countries.
There are several countries which are more direct than the US, such as Germany, Israel, Nordic countries and France.
“I remember a situation a few years ago where a French employee was being managed by a new US boss,” said Cvitkovich.
“She was having performance issues and we were brought in to try to coach her.
“We knew she was having her first performance appraisal from her new American manager.
“We expected she would feel discouraged as he told us he would be sharing some critical feedback with her.
“That is the most common challenge – we want the same things, respect, understanding, listening – but the behaviours are different”
“To our surprise, when we called her after, she was quite optimistic.
“She said, ‘I had a great review. I feel my new boss really understands me. I feel confident my career is really going to expand.’
“Confused, we called her manager to ask if he had delivered the negative feedback.
“’Oh yes,’ he replied, ‘I told her about her ‘development areas’.”
Upon further investigation, Cvitkovich said they found the manager had delivered the “critical feedback” but in the “sandwich format” which is popular in the US: saying something nice, saying what you really want to say in the middle, and then ending with something nice.
“She missed the middle!” said Cvitkovich.
How HR can help improve communication among diverse teams
HR professionals and business partners are often seen as the “people experts” and looked to for advice and strategies to leverage global talent to its fullest within organisations, Cvitkovich said.
For HR professionals who already have extensive international experience in cultural competence and working with diverse teams, Cvitkovich said the culture map framework can assist in providing a common language to talk about “how culture impacts the way we work and collaborate and to share your expertise with others,” she said.
“For those with less international experience, becoming familiar with these key cultural differences will help you avoid mistakes, anticipate needs, and communicate more effectively.”
Cultural differences can be leveraged as the greatest asset of an organisation in terms of striving toward innovation and high performance, and Cvitkovich said knowing what behaviours are needed to make each individual – regardless of their cultural background – feel respected, understood and listened to “can make you even more effective as a global HR professional”.