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How to Improve Communication and Build Trust in Cross-Cultural Teams?

by: Shiv Sharma

When I joined Taskworld in 2014, we were a team of 25 people from over 10 countries. Such diversity in a small team was and still is uncommon. As the company grew, it continued to attract talent from all corners of the globe. 

A vibrant, cross-cultural environment energizes the entire company. It improves the organization’s problem-solving skills, increases the influx of new ideas, and helps in understanding new markets. Taskworld was one of the first global project management tools to enter the Korean market, thanks to the invaluable contribution of our Korean colleagues. According to these statistics, cross-cultural teams outperform nondiverse teams by 35%. I don’t know how they calculated it but the benefits of a diverse team are quite apparent once you become part of one. 

Of course, there are communication challenges that are unique to cross-cultural teams. However, like any other team, the key to solving them remains the same – trust. 

So how do you build trust in cross-cultural teams? Should we simply ignore cultural factors or be mindful of certain things?

1. Understand Your Own Cultural Nuances

When cross-cultural teams first emerged, the focus was on comprehending the foreign culture. When an American MNC opened an offshore office in Bangalore, they would try to understand the work ethic of young Indian professionals and introduce them to the American way of doing business. 

This approach is difficult in today’s time when it’s common for multicultural teams to have people from more than just two cultures. In such situations, it better is to shift your focus inwards rather than outwards. 

When I first joined Taskworld, I was quick to judge different behaviors at work and attribute them to cultural factors. I would seldom introspect my own decisions with the same lens. For example, I could understand the underlying cultural reasons behind a German colleague’s candid communication, or a Thai colleague’s hesitation to speak up in public forums. But it took me some time to understand that my behaviors, such as difficulty in saying no at work, stemmed from cultural reasons as well. 

When we focus on understanding our own cultural nuances, it becomes easier to adapt and also to communicate more effectively with your colleagues. 

2. Create a Culture Code

It’s important to have a culture code for your team regardless of its diversity. But its importance only increases for cross-cultural teams. 

We discussed understanding your own cultural nuances. So, what should we aim for after that? A culture code helps in addressing this. It is inherently aspirational but still gives valuable principles to strive for. 

This is especially useful for cross-cultural teams. At Taskworld, one of the values that our culture code emphasizes on is transparency. As a result, all our strategic meetings have an open-door policy, everyone has access to the company’s financial information and is encouraged to raise problems rather than brushing them under the carpet. So if someone comes from a cultural background where transparency at work is unheard of, our culture code helps normalize, rather celebrate that behavior. This shows everyone a path to align their behaviors with the company’s values. 

When every person in the team aspires to embrace similar values at work, it significantly boosts all-round communication. 

3. Don’t Force Assimilation

To have high trust and effective communication in cross-cultural teams, you don’t need to force people to assimilate. In fact, that’s a counterproductive approach. 

I have seen this in many organizations with global talent in Bangkok. For example, during lunch, the Thai staff would usually prefer to have Thai food and converse in Thai. The expats would prefer western food in general. This is quite normal. I have seen some companies take radical steps like sponsoring (also mandating) lunch in the office to force locals and expats to assimilate. Needless to say, this seldom works out.

It sometimes helps to keep things simple. Don’t create problems to solve them. Understand your own cultural nuances, strive to embrace your team’s culture code, and then trust your team to do the same. Treat everyone as a unique individual and an adult. 

4. Resolve Conflicts on Priority 

Conflicts are never easy to manage. They are even harder in multicultural teams because not all cultures approach conflicts in the same way. Some cultures approach conflict directly while others have a tendency to avoid them. As Sean Dubberke mentions “Conflict – like culture – is quite complex. Combine conflict with work across multiple cultures and things become much more complicated”.

Still, the best way to approach conflict even in cross-cultural teams is to not treat it as a cross-cultural conflict but simply a disagreement between two people. Emphasize on the culture code to find common ground in resolution. If your company culture stresses on being candid, then try to adopt a similar approach to resolve conflicts, regardless of your cultural background. 

Conflicts, if effectively resolved, help build trust. Each conflict is an opportunity to bring the team together. The effort each person puts into conflict resolution is a sign of their commitment to the team. 

5. Use a Team Collaboration Tool

Many cross-cultural teams are spread across multiple timezones. Some are 100% distributed while others have the majority of the team in one location. Conflicts often arise from miscommunication, which itself is a result of a lack of visibility into each others’ priorities. 

Team collaboration tools help your team visualize the progress of all projects in the organization. You can see who’s working on what? Which areas require further support? This helps in aligning everyone towards a common goal. Using different Agile methodologies such as Scrum and Kanban, your team can remove bottlenecks and ensure that the communication is streamlined and contextual.

Team collaboration tools also offer virtual workspace. This helps create a sense of community in distributed teams and simplifies communication. 

6. Celebrate Diversity

I know this is a bit of a cliche. But it can really make a big difference. Especially if it is not forced from the top. Celebrating diversity can be a powerful tool to bring cross-cultural teams together when your team takes the initiative. 

At present, we at Taskworld have over 21 nationalities. During one of our companywide Q&A, a few members of the team expressed their desire to share their culture and learn from others. HR supported them and now we have started Diversity@Taskworld sessions, where people share their country’s culture with the rest of the team. It’s not a mandatory session but still, people are excited to attend it. 

I hope you found the tips useful. Let us know what your cross-cultural team does to build trust and improve communication. 

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