Leading and building a high-performing virtual team is challenging. When your virtual teamwork across different time zones and speak various languages, the challenges can be daunting, especially for those who enjoy leading in the office environment. Promoting cultural awareness within your global virtual team helps promote openness to various perspectives, reduce misunderstanding and conflict, and foster greater cross-cultural collaboration.
The best way to promote cultural awareness is to create an environment and culture where people feel safe and open to share. Cultural awareness can happen when we intentionally and regularly hold meaningful dialogues to discuss their differences.
Promoting Cultural Awareness is not a one-time effort. Specific factors that need consideration before fostering cultural awareness.
What Does It Mean To Be Culturally Aware?
Often, cultural nuances and differences are easier to explain in person within one's cultural context. When your team members cannot see or meet each other regularly, as do employees who work from the same office, it is harder to discuss these nuances and differences.
Cultural awareness is the ability to notice, recognise and respect others who hold different beliefs, values and customs. When we talk about cultural awareness, people often refer to the material aspect of a culture, such as cuisines, costumes, art, music, dance, symbols, holidays and religion. These are aspects of a culture that can be easily shared and learned together. Search online, and there is plenty of information to be found.
However, the immaterial aspect of culture, such as its history, social structure, politics, philosophy and even environmental context, is harder to grasp and describe. These intangibles influence a person's values, beliefs, logic and behaviour. These influences are deeply embedded that people are blind to them and assume everyone else adopts the same way of communicating, working or living.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace1 started his commencement speech with this.
These two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys. How's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?
The fish story suggests that the most obvious, important realities are often the hardest to notice and discuss. In a remote or virtual team, geographically dispersed members can't even see or experience each other's water.
Quite often, misunderstanding and conflict arise when we judge others according to our own cultural lens. Where it's a norm to speak up, a quiet colleague might seem incompetent. When it is a norm to listen first and speak when invited, a colleague who speaks out of turn can seem rude and inconsiderate.
By creating a space to share, ask, discuss and delve deep into each other's cultural differences, team members can significantly increase their cultural awareness and subsequently improve their teamwork and performance.
Can't We Take A Training Program?
Training programs to learn about each other's culture is one of the many steps to develop cultural awareness. A training program can happen within a short time, from a few hours, a day or even a few days. Training programs that incorporate adult learning techniques are better able to boost memory of the acquired knowledge. Typically, these programs include activities to simulate the experience of being in someone else's culture, such as role-plays or videos.
The problem with cultural training is that it fails to address the fluidity and dynamism of culture. A good program should increase a sense of openness and curiosity in the participants to learn more about other cultures. A lousy program can be harmful and solidify stereotypes, biases and possibly encourage discrimination.
The reality is that not everyone fits neatly into a cultural box. In an increasingly connected world, more and more people are identifying themselves as third culture. An ethnically Chinese person who speaks English could be raised in Ireland and migrated to Singapore. An ethnically Senegalese French-speaking person could be raised in Canada and move to Japan. What will be the cultural identity for both the Chinese and Senegalese? Will it be the ethnic culture, the national culture or the adopted country culture? If they lived in the "waters" of their adopted country long enough, do they then identify with their new culture?
Cultural Training can only take us so far. Thus, within a global virtual team, we need to put in the effort to recognise and empathise with each other on an individual level.
3 Ways to Promote Cultural Awareness
More should be done for your global virtual team to reap the benefits of cultural awareness. The most crucial thing in promoting cultural awareness is to bring these learnings and experiences into the daily conversations of your global virtual team. Here are three ways to promote cultural awareness in your international virtual team.
Don't assume. Don't take things personally.
Misunderstandings and conflicts are inevitable. Sometimes, we don't even realise that our ways of viewing the world and communicating it are causing conflict. When this happens, it is usually because of our underlying assumptions or our cultural lens to interpret the situation.
Assumptions on their own is not a bad thing, and it's human nature to do so. It helps to conserve our cognitive energy to work on more complicated things. In our daily life, we make assumptions all the time. When working in a global virtual team, the beliefs of your culture are not readily available to others and vice versa. One great sign to know whether you are operating based on assumptions is when what you typically say or do gets an "untypical" response.
For example, a new colleague joined your virtual team and started greeting the ladies on the call, "Ow do, my love?"
To this new colleague, it's their typical greeting from Yorkshire2 to acknowledge ladies in the room. For others, they may assume that your new colleague is flirting with them. If taken personally, one might feel offended by the informality in a professional setting.
If not addressed, tensions may increase, and the working relationship may continue to suffer. And your new colleague may not have a clue of why the conflict existed in the first place.
Suppose you find yourself in a situation where you are frustrated in working with someone from another culture. Pause and take a breath. Ask yourself, "Why is this person responding differently? What do they understand instead?"
You can tell whether a man is clever by his answers. You can tell whether a man is wise by his questions. ~ Naguib Mahfouz
Ask questions. Ask for meaning.
We cannot fully understand another culture if we haven't enough exposure to that culture. What we can do is to start a dialogue with openness and curiosity by asking questions.
An object or a gesture can carry different meanings depending on your upbringing. For example, a black cat can bring bad luck or be considered cute. Another example, as a goodwill gesture, you ordered a beautiful bouquet of white flowers to be delivered to your client. To you, those white flowers are beautiful. If your client is from Asia, they may take offence, as white flowers mean that you wish death upon them. The object of white flowers does not change, but the subjective meaning differs for yourself and your client.
When asking questions, ask for the other person's meaning and interpretation. A simple "What do you mean by that?" can bring about greater insight into how the other person thinks and interprets the situation.
Also, be mindful of how we ask questions. A simple why? question is interpreted as an eager learner with one tone or accusatory in another.
Share your perspective and prepare for continuing conversations.
When working on projects or solving problems together, you need to get comfortable in sharing your perspective. It might be the case that you are the only person from your culture in your global virtual team. You might be the only person in Asia, while the rest of your team is in Europe. Or you're the only Colombian in a group of East Asians. Suppose this is the case, highly likely your virtual team will have no understanding or experience of your culture and its context.
Others may be unaware that they operate within their cultural lens and may overlook specific cultural practices you hold dearly. This is where you need to be proactive in sharing your cultural perspective.
For example, you might share that your family is busy preparing food and coloured powder for an important cultural festival called Holi. Holi is an important festival to celebrate the arrival of spring and good conquering evil.
If there is interest, be willing to share more as it will help increase your colleagues' cultural awareness. They might ask, What is the purpose of the coloured powder? How do you celebrate the festivities?
Upon sharing, one also needs to be open to the responses from others about the perspectives. For example, your leader presented to potential clients and decided to limit self-promotion because your leader's culture highly values humility. Based on the lacklustre response, you realise that the clients might perceive your leader as lacking experience or qualification without self-promotion. It's a critical perspective that needs to be shared with your leader to adjust their presentation to win clients over.
But once shared, your leader may provide their perspective of their selected approach, which may or may not align with your viewpoint. This may lead to, at best, insights into each other's perspectives. At worst, uncomfortable conversations. No matter the outcome, sharing views can start meaningful discussions that allow everyone to learn about each other.
Ready to start?
Your virtual team will benefit significantly from promoting cultural awareness. Not only does it help to encourage openness and curiosity. In the long term, it also helps to reduce misunderstanding.
The steps listed here may seem simple but often difficult to practice. Focus on creating a safe environment and hold regular and meaningful discussions. By doing so, you are on your way towards fostering effective cross-cultural collaboration and building your ideal high-performing global virtual team.
- Wallace, D. F. (2009). This is water: Some thoughts, delivered on a significant occasion about living a compassionate life (1st ed). Little, Brown.
- Gibson, R. (2016, March 10). 52 Yorkshire Sentences That Will Confuse The Hell Out Of Everyone Else. BuzzFeed. https://www.buzzfeed.com/rachaelhgibson/yorkshire-sentences-that-will-confuse-the-fuck
Note: The original post was published on Culture Spark Global on the 13th of June 2020. This article has been updated and republished here.