“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
I recall many times this quote of General George Patton, a renowned US Army General, whose battles during WWII made him one of the greatest military figures in history.
I have been working in international teams for the past decade, and thinking alike is, most of the time, a rare coincidence. I have worked with teams comprising people from different countries, different cultures, different languages, different religions, people from East and West, from countries with wealth and financial prosperity, but also countries with financial and political challenges.
Working daily in such multicultural environments has been a great learning experience and quite an insightful journey for me.
In Microsoft, our mission is to empower every individual and every organization on the planet to achieve more. This can be done only if we embrace diversity. And we have to embrace it in a way that would allow us to be relevant to the local specifics of each market and culture while at the same time pursuing our global strategy and keeping a focused target towards excellence.
Today intercultural fluency is considered one of the most highly valued skills amongst employers globally. In a recent British Council report, employers in nine countries ranked intercultural skills, such as demonstrating respect for others and effectively working in diverse teams, even more highly than technical skills in terms of importance to their business. At the same time, another research conducted for the Economist shows that half of today’s executives consider misunderstandings rooted in cultural differences to present the greatest obstacle for achieving productive cross-border collaboration, and state that ineffective communication can obstruct major international business making.
As a result of the above, more and more employers are looking for candidates that can demonstrate global and intercultural fluency, particularly for jobs that require to work effectively in diverse and distributed teams. Why? Because an individual who can prove they can work in a diverse environment is someone who shows openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, as well as the ability to interact with all people, show respect and understand cultural differences.
So, what are the key qualities that people who are confident and effectively work in diverse, multicultural environments demonstrate? Which are the skills we need to build in order to leverage those benefits that cultural diversity can bring to the business? And how can we find or better learn our way through it?
Here are my learnings:
Question your own style and assumptions: Most of the time, our assumptions are based on our own experiences. Self-awareness is the first step to communicate effectively and collaborate in a diverse, multicultural team. Step back, and think about the way you communicate and the assumptions you make. You will very often realize that assumptions made on the grounds of your own thinking may mislead you, can create unnecessary friction, and many times lead to people feeling excluded and not part of the team. Also, examine the way that you communicate. Are you direct or indirect? Do you use nonverbal gestures frequently or rarely, and in what contexts? Do you seek agreement from the people who are listening to you when you make a statement?
Be curious: Curiosity is important when you are dealing with different cultures. Instead of making assumptions, be inquisitive, and ask questions. The challenging and exciting thing about intercultural communication is that everyone is operating on different assumptions and values. An open dialogue can uncover different ways of thinking, things that are important for the different team members, things that need to be considered based on the local specifics.
Travel as much as you can: Curiosity is not only about asking questions. It is also about the opportunity to experience the different cultures yourself. Be curious and take the opportunity to travel to the countries or cities your colleagues come from. Travel not as a tourist aiming for pure satisfaction, but rather as a learner. Travel to observe, to mingle, to read, to ask questions, to taste, to experience the local culture yourself.
Ensure all voices are heard: There are differences across cultures on how people express themselves. There are louder and quieter cultures, people who tend to engage and share proactively, and people who feel more comfortable when listening and usually do not share their thoughts unless they are asked to. Observe these silent people in the meetings. Ask them to share their opinion and ideas.
Listen carefully: Many times, we offer opportunities for people to speak, but we are not ready to listen. In most cases, we let people talk while we are preparing our own answers. This does not work with multicultural teams. Listen carefully without the urge to think of your own contribution. Listen, aiming to understand better. Listen, aiming to get deeper insights into people’s thinking and motivations. There is so much that you can learn if you are willing to listen more than you talk and watch how others communicate. How do your international colleagues communicate nonverbally? How close do they stand to the people they are talking with? How do they change their intonation or speaking rhythm, and what purpose does that serve?
Embrace tension: Diversity tension is the stress and strain that accompanies mixtures of differences and similarities. In such environments, team members might experience both stress and anxiety at the prospect of dealing with the “unknown” or the “different,” and these are creating tensions. Try not to minimize the tension, rather embrace it and use it as a creative force for change. This will require making decisions amid identity differences, similarities, and pressures. In other words – to also make use of my Greek origin: Leverage the “antitheses” (the contrasts of ideas, opinions, perceptions) to achieve “synthesis” (a combination of different elements to form a connected whole).
Resolve disagreements: In multicultural teams, disagreements and friction can happen more often. Why? For many reasons. Sometimes due to geopolitical challenges. Sometimes due to perceptions and stereotypes about different nationalities, religions, and cultures. When conflicts driven by cultural differences arise, it’s best to clear the air by talking “one-to-one”. Reflect before the meeting: What might this person be thinking? Consider their feelings and concerns. And then create the platform for people to be open and share their views.
Show empathy: Empathy is very important to understand where your colleagues are coming from and how cultural context may play a part in their beliefs and reactions. Think about how to create an environment in which your colleagues will feel comfortable speaking about the situation and sharing their concerns.
Recognize everyone’s contribution: Recognition is about appreciating people for who they are and acknowledging what they do. And for recognition to be effective and meaningful, it has to be always founded upon the value of respect. Recognition is mostly an intangible expression of acknowledgement and valuing of an individual or a team for their positive behaviours, their personal effort or contributions they’ve made. This is where recognition adds to diversity and inclusion by valuing people for their actions and contributions.
You will now ask me:
How can you do all of the above when working remotely?
I understand the challenge. Working in a pure virtual setting does not offer, by definition, the opportunity to observe in the same frequency and manner as when on site. My answer: apart from the obvious, which is usually to leverage and increase face to face meetings, today’s technology offers the means to simulate a face to face collaboration.
In my daily work, I use Microsoft Teams to collaborate with my team seamlessly, wherever I am. The amazing video conferencing capabilities (especially the ability to blur my/our background) offers us opportunities to look at each other “in the eye”, observe non-verbal communication styles and to simulate in-person team collaboration.
When people from different backgrounds interact, cultural fluency is the appropriate application of respect, empathy, flexibility, patience, interest, curiosity, openness, willingness to suspend judgment, tolerance for ambiguity, and acceptance of difference.
Intercultural fluency is not a skill we are born with, but rather a muscle that can be strengthened over time. The secret for building a connected and successful team in a multicultural setting is to stay humble, remain curious, consider diverse perspectives, and be open to learn and adapt. Only then cultural diversity can bring its real power into our organizations.