It is hard to imagine the social enterprise and venture capital ecosystem without cross-cultural teams. In our work with startups and organizations across East Africa we interact with multicultural teams on a daily basis: Local and foreign founders, team members from different East African countries, local and foreign investors and board members, international fellows and consultants, you get the picture!

While the day to day in the office with each other can sometimes be puzzling or draining, this diversity is an incredible opportunity to build innovative, winning and competitive models.

There are many reasons to invest into building a balanced culture and help teams leverage their diversity!

First of all, working in a multi-cultural environment is a huge selling point for this generation! Organizations that succeed in building a fun, well-functioning diverse work environment are very attractive employers and are likely to attract and retain top talent!

quoteAlso, you can increase your company’s ability to innovate and create products that last and faster and better problem solving by representing views and insights from a wide range of stakeholders into decisions. Leveraging different life and professional background improves business results in the short, mid and long-term.

There is ample research showing the business opportunity diverse teams have, but also the challenges associated with diversity, such as inconsistent norms and assumptions, which might reduce collaboration.

We asked around: How do different styles, beliefs and concepts shape workplace interaction?

We discussed this question in our session at the Sankalp Africa Summit 2019. We started the workshop by asking participants to share experiences where intercultural aspects caused tension and reduced productivity.

Communication styles always comes up: What one person calls an animated conversation, someone else might find an aggressive shouting match. Speaking loudly and talking over each other is perfectly normal and welcome in some countries but signifies lack of respect and decency to others. If contradicting the CEO in front of a group if they make a suboptimal suggestion increases your worth to the company in some places, speaking up to your boss can get you fired elsewhere. Even the preference of written vs. face-to-face communication is raised as an area of tension.

Some of these beliefs go deep to shape workplace interaction:

  • “People at my workplace tend to be more accepting of advice and guidance from expat colleagues, sometimes completely ignoring ‘local’ contribution altogether”.
  • “My boss keeps asking me to speak up. I am very soft spoken, and I know that he considers me less confident or even clever because of that. But in our culture, we believe that people who talk less are wiser! Equally, he insists on me keeping eye contact with my audience, yet when I grew up that was a sign of disrespect.”
  • “The concept of taking leave is very different here, for example, someone asking for (often immediate) compassionate leave of a family member is hard to question. Where I come from, there is an unspoken commitment to always finish work first.”
  • “Our junior team members do not ask questions to their superiors, even when specifically given the opportunities in team forums!”

It’s easy to imagine that some of these hesitations will affect an individual, a team and therefore organization performance.

Make it work through self-awareness and designing systems!

  • What on earth do you mean with systems? We think that in no fast-growing and ambitious company should decision making, communication style, information flow, and management and hiring approaches rely on any one culture or an individual’s preferences. Instead, teams should come up with agreements and build the culture and standardized approaches that will truly serve their mission.
  • Do so by pressing ‘pause’ if faced with a business challenge before jumping to action and evaluate the situation: Identify assumptions you’re using about how “things are done”, and think about what the ideal approach would be for a given situation.
  • Relying on diverse input to designing these systems might take longer in terms of initial design (imagine simply typing out a leave policy on your laptop vs. designing it in a team conversation) but is much more likely to be robust, a winning strategy AND implemented by everyone.
  • Keep it lean: Pick a pressing and contentious topic, gather input, then come up with a simple draft and agreement. Communicate that the agreement is open to change based on experience.

An illustrative example: Peter talks a lot in team meetings, to the extent that it becomes a dialogue between the boss and Peter. They take a big product decision together that pretty immediately backfires on the company. Anna takes the boss aside after a team meeting and shares her observations. She mentions that she personally prefers thinking things through before voicing her thoughts, and requests that the main discussion points be shared on email one hour to the team meeting. She also mentions that other team members may have thoughts, but feel shy to voice them in a group that’s seemingly in agreement. The boss then starts a new habit where at the end of a team meeting he invites worries, concerns and questions to be raised and reserves five minutes in the agenda for it, which results in a few moments of silence at first.  But soon, meetings become more lively, and after a few months, the five-minute rule is abandoned again, because criticism is now raised directly in the moment.

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Another crucial piece of diverse teams is cultivating and continually growing self-awareness in every team member. With high self-awareness, you’ll be able to take a nuanced approach in situations, listen better and communicate more clearly. Therefore you contribute to better decisions that will result in action.

In developing self-awareness, lead by example: After becoming more aware of what drives you, and communicating more clearly, you can ask and inspire others to do the same.  Debrief situations with yourself through self-reflective questions:

  • Why am I feeling and acting the way I am? Which written, unwritten or self-prescribed rules am I following in this moment?
  • Which assumptions am I basing my thoughts and decisions on? Could those be wrong? What am I unaware of in this moment that ought to be considered?
  • Whenever I feel in disagreement about someone’s opinion or behaviour, how can I invite and facilitate dialogue? What do I need to share about where I am coming from? What do I need to know about where someone else is coming from and how can I show that I’m truly open to understanding them?

Self-awareness is closely linked with intercultural competence, a crucial comptence for all teams that want to succeed in business. Four aspects are linked to intercultural competence: knowledge about different cultures, an attitude of openness, readiness to interact and learn, ability to show empathy and tolerance and willingness and ability to change own perspective.culture day

To develop these in yourself and the team, tap resources like trainings, workshops, webinars, videos and online resources, conversation & self-reflection guides!

And remember to make it fun! At edge, we hosted culture day recently, where team members present a culture other than their own, values, dress and food included. (I represented Pakistan which I’ve also found fascinating and that is in stark contract to my German fatherland 😉 )

Would you like support in building your own organization culture that truly serves your mission or want trainings to increase self-awareness or intercultural competence in your team?

Reach out to us! We look forward to hearing from you!

PS: Part 2 this series is coming! Another important question raised was how to avoid bias during recruitment, especially if you’re assessing candidates across cultures. For example, a manager feels more drawn to job applicants who provide answers quickly to everything, as this is closer to behaviour expected in their own culture.

We will share more insights in another article soon!