Cross-cultural communication is such a broad area of study that entire books and courses have been devoted to understanding its many implications. When it comes to large companies, especially in Corporate America, I believe that most challenges and opportunities arise from three basic cultural preferences: Our approach to work, the way we share information, and how we view time. All three of these preferences have an enormous impact on teamwork effectiveness.
Our Approach to Work
People of different cultures may view work from different perspectives. They often grow up in communities where the greater good is more important than individual pursuits, and relationships are valued over tasks, data, and knowledge. Latinos and other diverse groups, even when born and raised in the United States, share those cultural preferences. They make great team members because they place the collective goals of the team above their own.
But this emphasis on relationships also presents challenges. It means that work is personal and trust is critical to all relationships—whether personal or professional. That is why one of the first steps toward multicultural team effectiveness is to allow time for trust to develop among its members. While trust is not built overnight and business realities often call for swift results, failure to give greater emphasis to relationships often dooms the work of multicultural teams.
If you plan for one or more activities designed to let team members get to know one another before the actual work begins, the long-term effectiveness of your multicultural team will soar.
But relationships never take a back seat for people of different cultures. Once trust is established, Latinos and other diverse employees often nurture and attempt to protect relationships at the expense of deadlines and completion of other tasks.
To ensure productivity, have team members make a commitment to one another that their relationships will not suffer because of the work they must do together. Should any damage occur, they also should pledge that they will make time to repair it after the task is completed—or within a reasonable time frame. This acknowledges the importance of relationships and reduces the possibility of missing deadlines.
How We Share Information
Latinos and other diverse employees communicate indirectly. For example, they may imply that something is wrong but may not say so. Likewise, if they believe that asking a question may damage the relationship, they may not ask it. The reluctance to reveal the existence of a problem (or to ask for help when appropriate) also stems from fear of appearing incompetent. Most minorities bear the burden of their ethnicity. In their minds, any perception of incompetence may be generalized as a trait of their entire race.
The advantage of indirect communication is that employees who exhibit this cultural preference will seldom offend or attack someone’s work bluntly. Instead, they may attempt to get the other person to understand the problem through vague, non-committal statements. This behavior saves face and protects the relationship so that team harmony can prevail.
But if some of the team members grew up in much more direct cultures, such as the Swiss, Northern European or American mainstream cultures, this behavior can challenge overall effectiveness. Results-driven corporate America expects to be informed when something isn’t working. Thus, indirect comments are easily dismissed as chatter.
Helping all sides understand one another thus becomes key to preventing conflict and ensuring team effectiveness. This involves getting the direct communicators to probe when someone’s comments are vague (instead of dismissing them). But it also requires that indirect communicators feel comfortable enough to speak their minds without damaging relationships.
One way to make this happen is to encourage ongoing dialogue among team members so that everyone understands what information to share and when. All of them must agree that it is better to answer questions or hear the unpleasant news when there is still time to do something about the situation than when it is too late to change it.
How We View Time
Some cultures view time as limited, linear, and sequential. They concentrate on one task at a time. They go from one appointment to the next, with the clock dictating exactly when to do so. Mainstream America fits this pattern.
But Latinos and other diverse employees tend to think of time as abundant, systemic, and holistic. They multi-task. And they let the relationship at stake dictate when to move on to the next appointment. This does not imply that they will always be late. Rather, it indicates emphasis. For example, if someone with this cultural preference is involved in a conversation, he or she may be reluctant to end it abruptly just because it’s time to go to another meeting. Again, it is about taking care of relationships—and an expectation that, somehow, the folks waiting to start the next meeting will understand.
In my experience, these difficulties dissipate with experience. The more others react negatively to someone’s view of time, the more the person adjusts to theirs. How successfully this happens depends on the make-up of the team — and on their level of understanding and tolerance of other views of time