Back to Babel: Overcoming Communication Challenges in Multicultural Teams

Within the workplace, multicultural teams have become the norm, with team members bringing different values, assumptions, and patterns of behavior to the group. To work effectively within such environments and maximize knowledge transfer, it has become increasingly important to cultivate a global mindset and understand the impact of cultural differences on everyday business practices. This white paper will explore the dynamics of intercultural communication challenges, the importance of cultural awareness with regard to business practices, and strategies for managing and working within multicultural teams.

The most common communication challenges

Language doesn’t just occur through syntax, grammar, and the spoken or written word. It’s a flexible method of communication that incorporates gesture, shared understanding, humor, and — most importantly — another person to receive and respond to that communication. Multicultural teams run into trouble when the individuals involved are unable to identify the differences that exist within their own and the other members’ communication styles. These include:

The language barrier: This is the most obvious. How do you communicate with someone who doesn’t speak a word of the same language as you? Or only a few basic phrases?

The contextual challenge: What does a given message mean within the context of the other interactions and conversations occurring before, simultaneously or in the future? The objective: Does the message matter most, or is the delivery more important? Are truth and transparency a must, or does it depend on the circumstances?

The cultural lens: How does an individual from a different culture interpret meaning? How can certain behaviors or actions differ from one culture to another?

Here, from the Harvard Business Review, are examples of how these differing communication styles can create conflict:

A Latin American member of a multicultural consulting group was frustrated with his inability to communicate effectively. He told the Review, “Many times I felt that because of the language difference, I didn’t have the words to say some things that I was thinking. I noticed that when I went to these interviews with the U.S. guy, he would tend to lead the interviews, which was understandable but also disappointing, because we are at the same level. I had very good questions, but he would take the lead.”

In another instance, an American manager interfacing with a client in Japan did not realize the Japanese norm with regard to discussion: “In Japan, they want to talk and discuss. Then we take a break and they talk within the organization. They want to make sure that there’s harmony in the rest of the organization. One of the biggest communication challenges for me was when I thought they were saying yes but they just meant ‘I’m listening to you.’”

When the American sent a direct email pointing out flaws that existed in the system, she violated a cultural norm and was isolated from the discussions – both socially and physically. Although she was correct and the error was resolved, the Japanese team members did not appreciate her candor.

This is not to say that anyone within a given culture behaves the same way, but in order to communicate effectively, it is important to understand how someone’s background may affect his or her assumptions and perception of what is being communicated…

Tag: Communication Challenges

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