The crux of cultural competence

Suki Fuller at Miribure explains how to build a high-performing diverse global team

Today’s world of commerce is becoming increasingly diverse and global. As post-pandemic workforces move to remote and hybrid working models, businesses in many sectors are investing significant time and energy upping their game where international collaboration is concerned.

Leveraging today’s digital technologies, these organisations are looking to capitalise on key drivers that will enable innovation, growth and new opportunities. As well as rethinking routes to market and doubling down on personalising solutions and services, they’re bringing together people from all walks of life and geographies in a bid to spark new ways of thinking and grow their operations internationally.

Unsurprisingly, this means cultural diversity in business is on the rise as companies become highly attuned to research findings that show how diversity promotes creativity and improved financial performance. Not only that, Globalization Partners’ 2021 Global Employee Survey also found the majority (58 percent) of employees believe team diversity is the top benefit of working in a global team.

However, if companies truly want to make the most of the opportunities that enhanced diversity can deliver, they’ll need to foster a culturally competent workforce.

Why cultural competence counts

Understanding the challenges involved in building high performance teams across rich and varied cultures is something every business leader with global ambitions needs to prioritise.

For example, while it’s not uncommon for US employees to eat lunch at their desks while working, in France lunch is often a communal affair. This means working at your desk during a lunch break makes you a social pariah.

So when a head office team in one country dictates to a team in an overseas office how something should be done, without considering whether practices should be adapted for the local working context or market conditions, it’s unlikely that expected outcomes will always materialise. In an era where globalisation is becoming the mainstay to successful commerce, this lack of cultural competence can cost organisations dearly.

Indeed, failing to recognise cultural differences can have a significant financial and brand reputation impact, as organisations like Walmart and Starbucks have found to their cost.

Ultimately, cultural competence both prevents the inappropriate projection of values onto others and increases the likelihood of highly productive and meaningful interactions that lead to growth and success.

Mind the digital divide

Unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic has had both a positive and a negative impact on the cultural integration of today’s business environment. On the one hand, many organisations have found themselves released from geographical silos as people digitally connect with colleagues wherever they are.

On the other hand, the remote nature of today’s workplace cultures can also mean that the opportunity to create meaningful connections with colleagues now feels harder. For example, how can people really be expected to be aware of important cultural difficulties when working from home using virtual platforms like Slack and Zoom?

The traditional in-person meetings of the past, which were typically bookended by informal conversations and interactions with colleagues, provided a forum for people to gain a greater understanding of how others viewed a topic from different perspectives.

That included observing non-verbal cues such as body language before and during a meeting. In some societies, using hands too much is considered disrespectful; in other’s it is viewed as expressive and positive. Similarly, maintaining eye contact is a demonstration of sincerity and interest for some, while for others it is emblematic of something very different. All of this is much more difficult to navigate in the world of virtual communications.

The good news in today’s world of hybrid working is that people are recognising it’s OK to ask about verbal and non-verbal cues; what’s appropriate, what’s not, and gaining consensus on the best way to initiate and run virtual meetings in a way that benefits all.

Managing cross-cultural teams effectively

One thing is for sure. Fostering a more aware and open-minded workforce changes the organisational climate and prevents the cultural blunders that can stymie performance in overseas markets or create divisions among international teams.

While companies can establish some basic rules, ultimately these will need to be embedded over time. In terms of reinforcing cultural awareness in the workplace, people will need to be supported to explore and understand how their cultural perceptions may differ from those of other individuals and groups. As well as encouraging and validating cultural competence, negative behaviours will need to be challenged early on before these become entrenched.

Giving people and teams access to associates working in different functions and encouraging, indeed incentivising, collaboration with global colleagues will provide exposure to different thought processes and ways of doing things. Triggering new approaches to resolving challenges as people step outside the restraints of siloed thinking.

Ultimately, nurturing local culture across international teams starts with an important question: what exactly is culture as it relates to international business? In essence, this relates to the shared practices, beliefs and common expectations around how everyone behaves and conducts their business. Failure to agree will result in friction and a disconnect that will impede the ability of teams to collaborate and deliver on shared goals.

Getting this right is important because there’s a lot at stake. Sales and market success as well as staff loyalty, retention and wellbeing all depend on business leaders educating their people and eliminating unconscious bias or preconceptions about other nationalities.

Valuing diversity and embracing cultural differences

National and regional cultures and religions can have a big effect on the way employees communicate, respond to different management styles, prefer to work, set goals and place value. Refusing to acknowledge this will only lead to miscommunication, missed potential and tension.

Company directors will need to think deeply about the way cultural differences may manifest if they are to build a unifying ethos that works across their global teams. Once cultural differences are sensitively understood, organisations will be able to adapt their approach to business, enabling a more cooperative mentality and management style that translates into a variety of different contexts.

However, while organisations will be working to create a unified company culture, it is important not to erase cultural differences, since diversity and nuance is essential for progress and organisational growth.

Having identified the shared values and beliefs that will inform the workplace, leadership teams should make a point of communicating the company’s ethos both internally and externally. This can be done by including well-defined values and practices in an employee handbook and sharing the company’s culture on the corporate website and other platforms, such as LinkedIn. All of which will set out the company’s credentials when it comes to conducting international business and building global teams.


Suki Fuller is Founder of Miribure a strategic and competitive Intelligence consultancy. She is a Fellow of The Council of Competitive Intelligence Fellows and a board member for Tech London Advocates / Global Tech Advocates. Suki was recently named the 5th Most Influential Woman in UK Tech by Computer Weekly 2021.

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

Business Reporter

Business Reporter

© Business Reporter 2021

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