Four myths in cross-cultural cooperation
People are more frequently working in environment where their team-mates are abroad. They work in different timezones, different languages and have different culture. Although geographical difference has the biggest impact in cooperation (I will blog this later), culture too has impact at workplace.
When I work with teams that need to collaborate accross geographical and cultural borders, I often see the following myths to appear in discussion. I will cover these in more details in my trainins classes and here is a just a brief list.
Myth #1: “We’re just working here, everyone knows what good job means, no need for this cultural awareness thingy here”. The truth is opposite: everyone does know what goob job is, but that definition is different to everyone. While we can easily measure results of good job (e.g. revenue, profit or ROI), the most significant aspects can not be measured. These include trust, communication and conflict solving during the project. And these are the issues where cultural background shows: how you act to show trust (or lack-of-), how do you deal in conflicts etc.
Myth #2: “If we behave according to the other culture, we can avoid problems”. The truth is that we can not emulate or imitate other culture — we can imitate the visible signs but we can never fully understand the underlying thinking. The cultural iceberg shows that visible behavior is only a small part of culture. More important is to understand own behavior and its impact to others (what would others think if I remain silent/keep my hands crossed/do not return calls).
Myth #3: “Understanding cultural issues will solve most of the problems in our work”. The truth is that only small part of problems are cause by cultural differences. Problems usually get worse, if the related conflicts are fueled by different cultures approaching the problem in a different way. Most of the problems are caused by separated location, time difference, language problems. Pay attention to cultural issues but put a lot of effort to get people work together.
Myth #4: “This thing <X> is not possible in our/their culture”. You can replace <X> with any working practise or paradigm (“team work”, “self-organization”, “Agile”). Truth is that while culture may in general conflict with certain working style (e.g. “large power distance” vs. self-organized teams), each individual has their own choise. With careful recruitment and proper coaching, companies can establish the needed working practises in any country.
Culture and especially culture in working place has significant impact on the results of team work. However, culture is not usually the most significant factor for success or failure. Nor it is the starting point for problems, but rather a contributor to make problems bigger. Paying attention to own behavior and own culture brings the best results. Understanding cultures has value and the biggest value is in understanding own culture.