More often these days, we are being called on to lead, influence and navigate situations where there is more than one culture at play. Communication can be challenging at the best of times; when working remotely with diverse cultural teams, across channels mostly reduced to digital rather than in person, the difficulty can be compounded.
Our cultural lens is accustomed to our own societal rules and definitions of what is normal and what is not. When someone behaves differently to our own social codes, we can be quick to judge their behaviour as strange or even unacceptable. Recognising cultural expression as a learned behaviour, separate from personality, promotes a deeper level of understanding.
Here are three cultural nuances you can look out for that will help you foster understanding and communicate effectively when managing remotely:
1. Identity through language – ‘I’ or ‘we?
When a person uses ‘I’ more often than ‘we’, thinking that this person is not inclusive, demonstrating true leadership or team spirit is a mistake. This behaviour can be driven by a cultural value that speaks to identity and refers to how we see ourselves in relation to a group.
People who identify with individualistic cultures emphasise the needs of the individual over the needs of the group as a whole. Independence is highly valued as an individual’s right and tends to take a higher precedence. Members of individualistic cultures, such as is predominantly seen in Australia, tend to prefer personal goals, place greater importance on being assertive and stress personal freedom, so may often speak from the ‘I’ perspective.
This contrasts with collectivist cultures which highlights the importance of the group through social cooperation. Characteristics such as being dependable, generous and helpful to others are of greater importance than individual needs. Those whose orientation leans more towards collectivism will see themselves in the context of a group of people and tend to use ‘we’ to focus on group goals. As an example, Latin American and Arab cultures lean towards collectivism.
2. Interaction in groups – active or reserved?
Notice how some colleagues tend to dominate a meeting whereas others appear to lack initiative or hold back, despite being asked to participant more actively? They could be displaying their preference on the cultural spectrum of ity.
Hierarchical structures characterise a preference for high power distance. Such constructs tend to grant considerable power to those in positions of ity, be it the head of a family, those at the top of an organisation or leaders of a nation. People who identify with high power distance cultures are respectful of hierarchy and those in positions of power. They will tend not to speak up and offer opinions openly in a group situation, especially where seniors are present. They may also be reluctant to make decisions autonomously, awaiting directives from those in senior roles. High power distance cultures include China, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Conversely a more flat, egalitarian approach where power is dispersed suggests a low power distance culture. People who tend towards a low power distance culture are more likely to voice opinions freely, put forward ideas and challenge the status quo. Australia is strongly representative of a low power distance culture that emphasises equality.
3. Focus – task or relationship first?
When some people engage in seemingly lengthy casual banter, others may prefer to get straight down to business -this can relate to the cultural value of achievement. Competitive cultures tend to prioritise tasks over relationships and be more assertive and results driven. The opposite is true of cooperative cultures that prefer to collaborate with others. Those who sit on each end of the spectrum are not necessarily in opposition: they may be working towards the same goals, but merely approaching them differently. This can be wrongly interpreted as misalignment in a business setting, if you don’t appreciate the cultural nuances.
Most Western businesses are largely organised around a competitive orientation. Cultures that are cooperative in nature place high priority on collaboration through establishing and nurturing relationships. Cooperative societies are driven by guiding principles that prioritise collaboration and value human force. Nordic countries such as Denmark and Sweden are among the highest on the cooperative scale.
Keep in mind, you don’t need to have an international remit to be faced with culturally complex situations. Australia’s domestic population is one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse in the world. A country of immigrants, more than 75 per cent of the nation identifies with an ancestry other than Australian. How’s that for cultural diversity?
This article speaks to three values from a framework of ten cultural value dimensions. Value mapping amongst teams is a powerful way to deepen our understanding of the different orientations amongst team members of different cultural backgrounds.