Continuing from part 1 of this article last month, which highlighted soft issues below the surface which influence everyday behaviour and actions, let us look at some more examples including the importance of hierarchy.
Putting this into the context of working on a ship, if a questionable decision is made by a senior officer and it goes unchallenged, the consequences can be disastrous. In effect, there is no difference between the junior officer who understands an order, realises it is a mistake, but says nothing, and the junior officer whose comprehension of English is so poor that he does not understand the order and does the wrong thing – with the same result!
The importance of avoiding loss of face in some cultures was mentioned earlier. This is particularly true of those cultures where the good of the group is considered more important than the good of the individual. How can a junior suggest that his boss should change an order without the boss being forced to lose face? How can an individual challenge another without the risk of alienating not just an individual but also the cultural group to which he belongs?
The answer is that one needs to be sensitive and aware of cultural values that are operating. Suggestions can be made in such a way that the personal dignity and status of the person addressed is not threatened. This needs to be coupled with a business environment where speaking up is encouraged. Criticising too directly, belittling in front of others, shouting or even raising ones voice is unlikely to produce the right results. In the longer term, continued misunderstandings can lead to alienation and hidden dissent; in short, a divided and unhappy team.
There are a number of other underlying values, such as the approach to tasks, the issue of wider context (e.g. who matters as much as what), which play a critical if often hidden and unspoken role in multi-cultural teams. Understanding these and having the right strategies to work with differences are crucial for successful teamwork.
Communication is the glue in doing effective business and therefore differences in communication styles are also crucial because they can and do vary considerably between different cultures. Communication must be top of the list when considering cultural issues.
In Anglo-Saxon cultures, direct communication is valued and is interpreted as being honest and sincere and to the point. Words play the major role in the total communication. In many other cultures, however, indirect communication is the norm. Words and phrases may be chosen carefully in order to avoid giving offence and causing any loss of face or because of the status of the person or the relationship cultivated. So in this instance, words play a smaller role, but the context (as mentioned earlier) becomes an even bigger piece, including eye contact, tone and gestures amongst other things.
All this means that, in a culturally diverse team, misunderstandings can easily occur. To cite some examples, cultures with direct communication may feel that the cultures with indirect communication are not being honest and may have an agenda. By not saying exactly what they mean, they may be seen to be communicating in codes and wasting time! On the other hand, cultures with indirect communication styles may interpret the direct communicators as being arrogant and rude – people who do not care for the relationships and therefore cannot be trusted.
These differences in styles of communication can lead to some serious challenges especially where feedback and instructions are important for the cohesion of the team. One has to be sensitive to this and have the means and methods to ensure effective communication.
Cultural training can help to raise awareness of the challenges and to overcome the problems. Making staff aware of the cultural differences and how to adapt in working across cultures would be invaluable. This needs to be led from the top – and for all working in different countries (onshore and offshore).
The secret recipe might be described as being cross-culturally aware. This must include being aware of your own cultural values (harder than you think!) and adapting rather than adopting behaviours and skills to reduce the challenges. Seeing with a different cultural lens, rather than (often unconsciously) just your own, will enable adaptation and finding a style that successfully bridges the gaps.
The result will easily be a happier, more effective working environment that is safer and more secure. In turn, this will lead to better morale, a reduction in labour turnover and talent retention, especially at a time of skill shortage in an increasingly global workforce!
Laxmi Chaudhry (pictured right) is a Cross Cultural Consultant / Trainer, specialising in business effectiveness across international cultures (including remote working, outsourcing and joint ventures). She works with global organisations in many sectors including logistics and shipping. For more information contact Laxmi at [email protected] ; +44 (0)7793742767; www.1stophr.com