You say ‘tomato', I say ‘tomato’... How to get multicultural teams working together

Multicultural teams
Multicultural teams

You may already have a global workforce in place, or you might be putting globalisation to the top of your business agenda – either way you need to ensure that international teams have the tools and know-how to effectively communicate with their colleagues around the world. According to a study by IDC, HR departments should try to source local expertise and on-the-ground service providers when a company is expanding abroad, but getting teams from different cultures to work together effectively can present a challenge. If you skip training around cultural differences, expansion can be a multi-cultural headache and can cost companies dearly in lost talent and confused employees and customers… certainly not a recipe for success.

So who is responsible? It’s up to business leaders and HR departments to ensure those playing their part in this new global workplace are given a greater understanding of the possible cultural differences between people, how they can ‘read’ specific behaviours or communications and therefore help them avoid unnecessary miscommunication.

Often when there are instances of miscommunication, it can cause frustration and annoyance between team members. This emotional reaction can be incredibly damaging to personal drive, job satisfaction and team morale, and that can have an extremely detrimental impact on the effectiveness of a team.

To get employees singing from the same hymn sheet on a global scale, addressing cultural differences is key. From our experience, there are three main areas to think about: the perception of time, personal space, and sending and perceiving communications.

  1. Time Perception - If someone is late for a conference call or doesn’t show up, Brits might view that person as disorganised or even rude for not letting them know beforehand. However, other cultures may not be so offended by this behaviour – perhaps the person was caught up in dealing with an important enquiry? For some cultures, keeping time is not the top priority when you have an important person to speak to. Once this is explained to employees, it helps dilute the emotional reaction when one party misses a call or a virtual meeting.
  2. Space Perception – Everyone knows that some cultures are a lot more tactile than others… but what I mean by ‘space perception’ is actually around personal thinking time. For example, someone from Europe when asked a question would usually answer within seconds. In contrast, a team member based in Asia might pause for thought before committing to an answer and may even defer input for a day or two to have time (and space) to think. Knowing this, meetings can be put in the diary for a longer period of time and information can be shared ahead of deadlines to make sure everyone is comfortable with decisions.
  3. Sending and Perceiving Communications – This is probably the most important area to think about. With email, cloud tools and web apps taking over, written and verbal communication has taken the place of face-to-face discussions. Without hand gestures, facial expressions and body language, teams can often misunderstand the tone or message that is being put to them and this can lead to confusion or offence. For example, the Brits use veiled language and often use a lot of words to shield what they are saying out of an innate need to be polite and courteous, but the Dutch culture can be frank and open in emails. Without being made aware of this cultural difference, the British colleague may consider their Dutch colleague rude, where they will in turn be judging them for ‘waffling on’ or sending an email that is not clear (direct versus indirect speech).

We have around 250,000 SMEs as clients around the world and so our teams really are situated in the far reaches of the globe. To foster a culture of collaboration, we see it as business critical to keep them on the same page and make sure everyone is aligned through our in-house training. We’re on a mission to unify our product offering and create a global accounting platform, but we can only do this if Exact is a living example of a globally connected workforce – we have to live and breathe it.

Acknowledging there are differences and learning that they are cultural is fundamental. Once both parties understand this, it leads to a more harmonious way of working where both parties understand one another’s cultural quirks. Training can really help global teams understand that everyone is different – and what a wonderful thing that is.