3 Strategies to Build Cultural Competence in Global Teams

Global teams are often comprised of people from different nationalities working together across various locations, time zones, and continents, to solve complex business problems. Global team members work in virtual teams and communicate through a mix of e-mail, Instant Messaging (IM), phone, conference call, web conference, and video chat. While global virtual teams can provide specialized, high-skilled talent that is not always available locally, the problem of managing cultural differences cannot be ignored. While there are a plethora of strategies for building cultural competence on offshored and outsourced global teams, let’s take a look at three that may not always be commonly discussed. 

Examine Our Own Culture 
Learning about the target business culture of the onshore or onsite client/partner is a widely accepted practice. For instance, while cultural experts are invited into companies to teach Indians about American culture, rarely would a cultural trainer come in to teach or coach groups to understand why certain things are done in certain ways in their own culture. In some cases, offshore teams learn so much about their onsite partner’s culture and they ignore learning about their own culture and motivations, which also may lead to problems. In order to balance cultural differences, it’s important to understand the foreign culture and our own culture. This would help us to identify the gaps and fill them based on circumstances and interaction with people.

The importance of learning about one’s own culture is underestimated. It can lead to various problems such as:

  • Having a prejudiced view of the entire working relationship.
  • Being unable to balance the differences between one’s own culture and the foreign culture.
  • Developing unrealistic expectations that lead to disappointment and frustrations.
  • Being unable to evaluate the complexity of one’s own culture against the foreign culture.
  • Being unable to study one’s culture as it has become a ‘way of life’.
  • Focusing too much on the foreign culture.

While learning 'our own culture,’ it is important not only to learn about our national business culture, but also about our corporate culture, as these are intertwined and are vital while interacting in international business environments. We should not forget that the offshore team may have members from various nationalities and cultures. In India, a team may consist of members from different states of India, thus leading to diverse cultures within the team. It is important to balance the local team’s culture before attempting to balance the global one.

Build Understanding of Business Needs in a Cultural Context 
Why is an app for college schedules so important for American college students? Or why are certain types of logistics software required for those in the trucking and transportation industry in the U.S.? How does it benefit the end users?

I have met entrepreneurs and CEOs of companies in India that create innovative solutions for the U.S. market which are not relevant for the current Indian cultural or social makeup. In addition to understanding the business culture of the target market, it is equally necessary to understand the importance of the product or service to the client or end user. Knowing this critical information is essential to build business acumen among the employees who work on projects that may not seem to make any sense from their own cultural context. This is especially important for offshore teams with no practical experience of living in the country of the target market. This enables them to analyze and determine how and why the product or service is relevant to the business or people that they delivering it to. Understanding this missing element can help with prioritizing tasks, communicating workflow, and even negotiating daily discussions such as deadline crunches or analyzing feature requirements and usability. Understanding the reason behind the need helps those working on the ground level work smarter and more effectively. 

Don’t Overdo It 
Many client-facing companies in India working on a partial or full offshoring model may seem to bend over backwards for their client. 

We have all heard stories of employees taking on American names or faking an American accent. While Authentic Journeys’ approach does not endorse faking an accent, we do believe that depending on the role, clarity of speech over the telephone does go a long way in building good business relations on global virtual teams regardless of the national, cultural background, or native English speaking ability. 

Some companies based in India that hire a local team adapt to working schedules within the same time zone as their American, Canadian, or British counterparts. 

Additionally, some companies’ yearly holiday schedules reflect the foreign client’s holidays. While Indian teams may celebrate St. Patrick’s Day or Thanksgiving at work along with their major local Indian holidays, the only holidays that they may be given as paid time off (PTO) are the foreign holidays. While this does demonstrate their ability to be culturally competent, and to go the extra mile to satisfy the customer or client, it can often cause cultural confusion, resentment, and, over time, a lack of connection with one’s local culture. (Read more here.) Practices being followed by other companies may not apply to yours. Be flexible, review periodically, and adapt accordingly.

In this short article, we have explored three suggestions to balance cultures and increase cultural competency in offshore teams. What has your experience taught you about cultural competency among global teams? Share your experiences in the comments section below.
Jennifer Kumar, author is the Managing Director of Authentic Journeys. Based in Kochi, India, Authentic Journeys provides cross-cultural business strategy sessions for offshored and outsourced teams.

Chris Sufi is a freelance editor who lives in Bangalore, India. Her personal interest in language and communication inspires her to contribute through proofreading and editing.

Related Articles/Sources:
The Rise and Staying Power of Virtual Teams 
The Culture Shock of India’s Call Centers 
Tips for Speaking Clear English on Global Teams (for non-native as well as native English speakers) 

This post originally was featured in the Ekipa.co blog, here.

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