Build Cultural Competence in Global Teams

Posted On: February 15, 2016

Global teams are often comprised of people from different nationalities working together across geographies, time zones, and continents, to solve complex business problems. Global team members work in virtual teams and communicate through a mix of video call (Zoom, Google Meet, etc.) e-mail, Instant Messaging (IM), and other asynchronous communication tools.


In the quest for locating high-skilled talent, hard skills are often given precedence over soft skills like understanding cultural differences. While ignoring the importance of cultural differences seems like an easy-out, it often leads to other unseen challenges we notice later. 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. 

Steps to Build Cultural Competence in Global Teams

Step 1: Examine Our Own Culture 

Many teams in India that prioritize cultural training often identify a trainer specializing in the national culture of their onsite partners. 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 about their onsite partner’s culture, while ignoring understanding their own culture. In order to balance cultural differences, it’s important to understand both 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.

While, the importance of learning about one’s own culture is underestimated, learning exclusively about other cultures while ignoring our own can lead to 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.
  • Resentment for the other culture(s). 


Step 2: Build Understanding of Business Needs in a Cultural Context 

I have consulted with CEOs in India that create innovative solutions for the U.S. market. As these solutions often had no context to the realities in India, developers had a harder time understanding the client’s motivation for such solutions. This demonstrates the importance of building cultural and business context for the solutions and how they impact the client or end-user’s life. 


For instance, let’s consider why is an app for college schedules so important for American college students? Or, why would truck drivers in the US require logistics software? How does it benefit the end-users?


When dev teams know this critical information, it can make building relationships easier as it builds business acumen and cultural context. This is especially important for offshore teams with no practical experience of living in the country of the target market, for example. This enables teams to gather insight about why the product or service is relevant to the clients and end-users. Understanding this missing element can help with prioritizing tasks, communicating workflow, and even negotiating feature requirements and usability. Understanding the reason behind the need helps those working on the ground level work smarter and more effectively. 

Step 3: Don’t Overdo It 

Many client-facing companies in India working on an offshoring model may seem to bend over backward for clients. 

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 hire a local team that adapts 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. This often leads to cultural confusion, resentment, and a lack of connection with one’s local culture. Practices followed by other companies may not apply to yours. As with any practice, it’s important to be flexible, review periodically, and adapt accordingly.

To summarize, we have explored three strategies to increase cultural competency in offshore teams. What has your experience taught you about cultural competency among global teams? 


Jennifer Kumar, author is the Managing Director of Authentic Journeys, helps build cultural competence in  offshore and outsourced teams. Contact her for more!


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) 


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