Fostering Cross-Cultural Understanding in a Diverse Workforce

Mar 14, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends

Cross-cultural sensitivity is of paramount importance in the increasingly globalized business world. Rather than just a moral imperative, it’s also a business necessity. To enhance engagement and cohesion as workplace diversity grows, leaders must prioritize cross-cultural understanding.

A recent study shows that 89% of white-collar employees work on global teams at least on occasion. On these virtual teams, members may reside around the world. But participation on such a team doesn’t automatically equate to understanding.

“Millions of people work in global settings while viewing everything from their own cultural perspectives and assuming that all differences, controversy, and misunderstanding are rooted in personality,” says Erin Meyer in The Culture Map. “This is not due to laziness. Many well-intentioned people don’t educate themselves about cultural differences because they believe that if they focus on individual differences, that will be enough.”

Table of Contents

1. Understanding Cross-Cultural Sensitivity

2. Challenges of Cross-Cultural Interactions

3. Strategies for Developing Cross-Cultural Competence

4. Case Studies

5. The Role of Leadership in Cultivating Cultural Sensitivity

Understanding Cross-Cultural Sensitivity

In a diverse workforce, cross-cultural sensitivity plays a central role in promoting an inclusive workplace. Understanding and respecting cultural differences creates a sense of psychological safety at work for everyone. 

Further, cross-cultural sensitivity and inclusivity encourage everyone to contribute at the highest possible level. People feel more comfortable voicing their thoughts—and they know how to listen and communicate to ensure genuine understanding. 

Challenges of Cross-Cultural Interactions

Working cross-culturally gives teams a broader range of knowledge and perspectives, which can lead to out-of-the-box solutions. However, misunderstandings, biases, and microaggressions all too commonly occur due to lack of cultural sensitivity.

  • Communication barriers. Meyer discusses how when she and a Chinese colleague were delivering a presentation together, he remained silent. Finally, she learned that he’d been waiting for her to pause to give him an “in.” While Americans often interrupt each other, other cultures prioritize politeness and allow for longer pauses between speakers, she realized.
  • Misunderstandings. Due to different interpretations of language or differing cultural norms, misunderstandings of speech or actions can occur.
  • Unconscious biases. Cultural stereotypes and misconceptions can influence how people perceive one another. 
  • Microaggressions. These include statements, questions, or behaviours grounded in hurtful assumptions about another person, often resulting from cultural differences.

Teams can work through all of these challenges through heightened awareness and sensitivity. Next, we’ll discuss how to do that.

Strategies for Developing Cross-Cultural Competence

Employees from diverse backgrounds having a meeting
Credit: Ivan Samkov/ Pexels

Only 42% of managers feel prepared to discuss race and equality at work, says Gallup. But participating in trainings on diversity, equity, and inclusion can change this situation and build cross-cultural understanding. In turn, managers will be better equipped to support their teams’ growth in these areas.

Let’s discuss several key ways in which leaders and teams can develop cross-cultural sensitivity.

Assessing Your Cultural Fluency

Prompt managers and employees to take an evaluation to assess their level of cultural fluency. The Intercultural Development Inventory gauges people’s intercultural competence. It can help measure knowledge gaps and establish a baseline to grow from. Based on the results, it provides recommended behaviours to work on, say Jane Hyun and Douglas Conant in Harvard Business Review.

Cultural Awareness Training

Cultural awareness trainings help people learn about cultural norms that differ from their own. Such sessions can also help them identify and unpack their preconceptions. For instance, Meyers had unconsciously assumed that her colleague would eagerly jump in when he had something to add. 

Some cultures prefer direct feedback, while others opt for indirect feedback, as Meyers asserts. Further, in low-context cultures, what the speaker says is meant to be understood at face value. In high-context cultures, like Japan, there are more layers to communication. Much remains unspoken, and listeners must read between the lines. Through observation and education, people can learn to adapt to such cultural norms. (Training can be a two-way street, too, with people from high-context cultures learning to adapt to low-context norms.)

Similarly, French workers often spend time engaging in pleasantries before diving into work, says Matilde Henry of Adobe. Meanwhile, their Nordic colleagues may jump right in to work-related matters. “Efficiency translates as politeness, as unnecessarily taking up someone’s time would be disrespectful,” she explains. “The intention is the same in each scenario, but the approach is different.” Formality can also vary; French colleagues tend to address each other more formally than their British or U.S. counterparts.

Open Dialogue

Normalize the practice of talking about cultural norms and preferences. As a team, hold a roundtable discussion on topics like how you communicate in meetings, handle project collaboration, and use nonverbal communication. Talk about how you can consciously adapt to one another’s needs.

Town Halls and Listening Sessions

As Gallup’s research suggests, these sessions can enhance cultural understanding among managers and employees. A listening session can involve hearing a group of people from a particular culture discuss their experiences. Listening sessions can build empathy by imparting understanding. Listeners gain perspectives they might never otherwise hear. 


Corrective coaching can prove helpful if an individual has displayed a pattern of bias or microaggressions. A coach can help this person understand the assumptions they’re making and learn how to adopt new behaviours. 

By instilling empathy and adaptability, emotional intelligence aids people every step of the way in building cross-cultural understanding.

Case Studies

Amy leads a virtual team with members in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe. Recently, when she asked team members in Mexico if they could take on a new assignment, they agreed. But now, they seem to be scrambling to keep up with this demanding new project on top of their regular responsibilities. While speaking with a consultant, she realizes that she should have held an in-depth conversation about how the project could fit into their normal scope of work. They may have felt they had no choice but to agree, given their cultural norms that prioritize humbleness and deference to authority.

Lance manages a team that includes people from Canada, the U.S., and Africa. Recently, he learned that some of his Kenyan colleagues are struggling with his management style. He thinks back to a couple of conversations where two of these team members shared feedback with him. It seemed overwhelmingly positive at the time, but now, he realizes they were sharing more subtle indirect feedback about how he could change. He remembers one sharing a humorous story about another leader, now realizing it may have been intended to illustrate a behaviour to avoid. Through cross-cultural training, Lance becomes more adept in recognizing such advice in the moment and adapting as needed.

The Role of Leadership in Cultivating Cultural Sensitivity

Leader having a cultural sensitivity awareness training session
Credit: Kampus Production/ Pexels

Let’s discuss how company leadership can create a nurturing culture for employees of all backgrounds—and foster a high level of cohesion between them.

Designing Culturally Sensitive Policies

Adapt to employees’ needs through culturally sensitive policies. For example, employees of some cultures may be more likely to need to care for aging parents. Religious accommodations are also crucial. For example, provide a space for prayer if needed. Survey employees on their specific needs and work to respond accordingly.

Creating an Inclusive Environment

Leaders must create an environment that values cultural diversity. What does this mean in practice?

“As a leader, you must be willing to adjust your approach to others. Never assume that others will adapt to you,” say Hyun and Conant. Question whether your “default managing mode” applies in the culture you’re working in. This means first understanding your leadership approach and strategies, then being willing to adapt them.

For example, they say, you might have an open-door policy, but everyone may not feel comfortable walking through that door. You may want candid feedback, but not everyone will feel comfortable being forthright with leadership, especially in a group setting. Sensitively seeking out people’s perspectives through one-on-one dialogue may work better, in such cases.

Establish cultural norms based on inclusive practices as a team, too. Try to find compromises as a group that meet everyone’s needs. For example, use inclusive language by avoiding idioms and jargon that everyone may not know.

Ask Questions—and Listen Carefully

Continuously ask questions (of yourself and others) that challenge your assumptions. Ask about people’s preferred communication norms and methods of sharing and receiving feedback. And if conflict occurs, suspend judgment and strive to understand where it’s really coming from. Calmly ask questions about the reasons why team members took certain actions that contributed to the situation.

When asking whether a person can take on a new assignment, avoid “yes or no” questions. Instead, begin by asking about their current workload. In some cultures, people may feel less inclined to say “no” to a boss’s request. This could stem partly from the power distance between workers and managers in different cultures.

Listen closely and read between the lines as well. Because some cultures prioritize politeness, you may not notice the subtle advice certain employees are sharing unless you listen carefully. Feedback may be coded differently from one culture to another, but it remains just as valuable. Look for clues that the other person may have more to say, like facial expressions, as Revati “Rani” Puranik says in HBR, so you can ask for more insights.

Cross-cultural sensitivity holds pivotal importance in today’s workplace, particularly with the increased level of workplace diversity. Many companies have learned to thrive in the context of increased workplace diversity, reaching new heights of success by integrating a broad spectrum of viewpoints. Enhance your team’s cultural competency through regular trainings that keep diversity at the forefront of your minds. Through regular exposure to different cultural norms, methods of questioning assumptions, and strategies for adapting to cultural needs, leaders and employees will take their organization to a new level of excellence.

Related Articles