International Culture in the Modern Workplace: Strategies for Navigating Global Differences

Apr 18, 2024 | Employee Engagement, HR Trends

International workplace cultures are rapidly gaining prominence in the globalized business world. Working with people from different cultures brings immense benefits, but challenges can arise as well.
With the diversity of cultures that can exist in a single team, misunderstandings can easily occur. In this article, we’ll explore the impact of diverse international cultures on workplace dynamics and how to effectively lead global teams.

Table of Contents

1. The Diversity of International Workplace Cultures

2. Cultural Differences and Communication

3. Leadership Styles Across Cultures

4. Work Ethics and Practices

5. Navigating Cultural Misunderstandings

6. The Role of Cultural Intelligence

7. Inclusivity and Cultural Sensitivity

The Diversity of International Workplace Cultures

Today’s global workplace can consist of a wide variety of cultures, particularly for virtual teams. By 2018, 89% of remote teams had members of more than one culture, and over a third included members of four or more cultures. 

This diversity brings a rich array of ideas and strengths to the table. Culturally diverse teams show heightened creativity, conduct more careful analysis, avoid groupthink, and make wiser choices. Further, they have higher satisfaction levels, assert Günter K. Stahl and Martha L. Maznevski in the Journal of International Business Studies. Surprisingly, these researchers also found that communication doesn’t typically suffer on a diverse virtual team. However, they suggest that on more highly diverse teams, communication likely requires more conscious effort.

To maximize the benefits of an international workplace culture and overcome its potential challenges, organizations should prioritize learning about cross-cultural communication norms, leadership styles, and practices, as we’ll discuss.

Cultural Differences and Communication

An HR manager discussing cultural differences and communication
Credit: LinkedIn Sales Navigator/ Pexels

Cultural differences strongly influence communication styles, social norms, and power dynamics in the global workplace. When we come to understand and adapt to these differences, they become opportunities.

How much employees choose to share input can vary dramatically from one culture to another, for instance. Directness is prioritized in egalitarian countries like the Netherlands; employees from such cultures feel more free to speak their minds. Leaders from egalitarian cultures working in more hierarchical cultures may not understand why people aren’t sharing input. Employees from countries like China may expect leaders to present specific directives rather than hashing out a plan with them.

Culture can also influence a person’s willingness to say “no,” as Andrej Jovonic writes in Forbes. What one person perceives as healthy boundary-setting may feel rude to another, leading them to accept an assignment they don’t really have time for. North Americans and Europeans may be more likely to say “no” than their Asian colleagues, says Jovonic.

In The Culture Map, Meyer outlines eight different scales that characterize behavioural differences between cultures. These cultural differences relate to sharing feedback, establishing trust, expressing disagreement, and other aspects of communication. For instance, some cultures provide a high level of context to express an idea; others provide a low level. In high-context cultures, people must read between the lines, decoding layers of meaning, while low-context cultures provide more straightforward messages.

Meyer offers several culture mapping tools to build understanding in the global workplace. With her Team Mapping Tool, for example, leaders can see how they and their team members respond to the same set of questions.

Leadership Styles Across Cultures

A manager with a very open and honest leadership style
Credit:Anna Shvets/ Pexels

Leadership styles can vary widely between cultures. These cultural differences can cause much confusion and hinder leaders’ effectiveness when managing international teams if they don’t learn to adapt. 

Here are several prominent leadership approaches, outlined by Meyer in Harvard Business Review:

  • Top-down and hierarchical (China, Brazil, India, France, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia)
  • Top-down and egalitarian (U.S., Canada, UK, Australia)
  • Consensual and hierarchical (Belgium, Japan, Germany)
  • Consensual and egalitarian (Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands, Norway)

For instance, Japanese employees often feel confused about how American leaders seem outwardly egalitarian but authoritarian in their decision-making, writes Meyer. Japanese teams tend to use a more consensus-based style of decision-making, while American leaders prefer to call the shots.

In Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Japan, people spend more time in collective decision-making processes, she continues. Decisions are then implemented swiftly and precisely. Meanwhile, in countries like the U.S., India, Russia, Italy, and Mexico, decisions are made with a top-down approach but can then be modified during the implementation phase.

Level of politeness vs. directness can vary between cultures as well. For instance, in New Zealand, Canada, and many Latin American countries, employees expect bosses to be very polite rather than blunt, notes the World Economic Forum. Leaders in North American countries may also couch difficult messages in positivity or compliments, causing some employees to miss the gravity of their statements.

Further, when leaders in top-down countries like the U.S. arrive at a decision, team members from the same culture may understand that more planning and discussion will be occurring. But people from cultures like Germany might leap into action without realizing this, Meyer notes.

Work Ethics and Practices

Work ethics and practices can differ substantially across cultures, affecting attitudes toward time-management, hierarchy, and teamwork. In turn, these differences can influence workplace productivity and collaboration.

For example, perceptions of whistleblowing vary greatly from one culture to another, explain researchers in the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management. In a collectivist, hierarchical culture like that of China, people tend to be less prone to whistleblowing than in the U.S. or Scandinavian countries, they note. Further, Americans are more likely to uphold their personal ethics while people from collectivist cultures like Korea are more likely to embrace the company leader’s ethics, they add.

Cultural background can also influence work values and preferences. Japanese managers strive for an orderly, streamlined approach that promotes balance, while excitement may be more highly prioritized in Australia. A chaotic atmosphere may feel alienating to people from cultures that prefer balance and order. Similarly, one study found that Chinese immigrants working in the UK valued stability over risk-taking, while British workers more strongly valued risk-taking.

Navigating Cultural Misunderstandings

Cultural misunderstandings can arise from any of the above differences. However, they don’t need to hinder team performance. Strive to become aware of these differences so you can carry this understanding into your interactions. Look for compromises and solutions that meet everyone’s needs, using strategies like these to support your efforts.

  • Ask people who have lived in different cultures to act as a cultural bridge. They may spot and articulate misconceptions before they become problems. Multicultural individuals have a significant positive effect on team communication, Stahl and Maznevski found in their meta-analysis.
  • Have a designated “cultural coach” for a leader working in a new culture (or on a multicultural team). They can help identify knowledge gaps and guide the leader in refining her approach.
  • Survey employees on their needs. Instead of making generalizations, ask them about their individual preferences. 
  • Discuss expectations rather than allowing them to remain tacit assumptions. 
  • Ensure that leaders explicitly discuss the decision-making process with their team, outlining how it works.
  • In one-on-ones, strive to create a relaxed, psychologically safe atmosphere where people can discuss their needs. 
  • Ask employees specific questions, such as, “What would encourage you to participate more in group discussions?”
  • Undergo periodic cross-cultural trainings as a team. The experience will deepen awareness and foster stronger relationships.

Next, we’ll discuss how cultivating cultural intelligence through such trainings will enhance team dynamics.

The Role of Cultural Intelligence

Cultural intelligence, or “CQ,” involves the ability to adapt to cultures outside of one’s own and to effectively communicate with and listen to people from these cultures. This means understanding cultural norms, reading between the lines to ensure understanding, and recognizing and addressing potential miscommunications. 

A person with high cultural intelligence will help team interactions flow more smoothly in international workplace settings. In a culturally diverse environment, people are prone to misinterpret one another’s words and behaviours without a high level of CQ. Through continued training and interaction with people of other cultures, leaders and employees can enhance their cultural intelligence.

Inclusivity and Cultural Sensitivity

Cultivating cultural intelligence will aid in forging an inclusive and culturally sensitive workplace. Organizations will uphold their commitment to cultural diversity by fostering this environment. All team members will then feel heard, valued, and able to contribute at a high level.

Use these principles and strategies to enhance inclusivity and cultural sensitivity:

  • Provide cultural adjustment training for people working in a new culture or on a global team. Few organizations provide such training, yet it can significantly decrease anxiety and enhance performance, say researchers in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
  • Notice and appreciate the strengths of individuals from every background. When people feel recognized for their strengths, they perceive their work environment as far more inclusive, says Gallup.
  • Be wary of generalizations. Although different cultures have particular norms, treat each person as an individual.
  • Don’t ask people to assimilate. You can ask people to adapt and compromise, but don’t try to create a homogenous group.
  • Train all leaders and employees on how to act as allies to those of different backgrounds, races, genders, or ethnicities.

International culture has a powerful influence on workplace dynamics. By understanding and embracing cultural diversity through CQ and related strategies, you’ll enhance the success of your global workplace. Whether you’re a small company with employees from different places or a multinational corporation, these strategies will foster strong team cohesion that strengthens outcomes.

To see firsthand how software can enhance management of a diverse team, demo our product.

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