Intercultural communication skills can help improve trust and reduce miscommunication in hybrid and diverse workplaces. Discover valuable tips to improve your teams' intercultural competence in this article.
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Remote and hybrid working have blurred geographical boundaries making the workplace truly global and increasing opportunities for intercultural collaboration. Yet these opportunities also bring challenges for our teams. Virtual communication makes understanding diverse cultural behaviours and overcoming intercultural communication barriers more difficult.
A British Council survey in 2012 found that “employers are under strong pressure to find employees who are not only technically proficient, but also culturally astute and able to thrive in a global work environment.” This finding holds true now more than ever: a PwC CEO Panel Survey found that CEOs across the world intend to continue with remote and hybrid working; yet poor intercultural competence within the organisation can cost millions.
Intercultural competence is the knowledge, attitudes and skills we need to communicate effectively in intercultural situations. It is vital to effective engagement, productivity, and performance in the hybrid workplace.
So, how can workplace intercultural competence be improved, enabling individuals and the organisation to overcome intercultural communication barriers and achieve their goals within this global virtual space?
Understand what culture really means to avoid assumptions and stereotypes
‘Culture’ is a complex concept and has traditionally been viewed as the same as nationality or country. While this can be useful to help us prepare for unfamiliar situations, it can also be dangerous as it can lead to stereotyping groups of people or incorrect assumptions about behaviour and preferences.
The British Council defines culture within the framework of ‘identity’:
Our cultural identity is made up of values, beliefs, preferences and practices. Our workplace cultural identity is influenced by a range of cultural groups such as our industry, organisation and profession, as well as family, school, gender, disability, age, local area, region and country.
Successful intercultural communication happens when people with differing values, beliefs, preferences and behaviours recognise and respect cultural differences and actively work towards mutual adaptation.
Develop knowledge, skills and attitudes to improve intercultural communication in hybrid workplaces
According to research published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, it is possible to learn intercultural competence and develop skills to communicate effectively in intercultural situations.
1. Gain deeper self-awareness and better understand your behaviour
The first step in recognising cultural differences at work is to become aware of your own workplace cultural identity. What are your core values and beliefs and how do they influence your workplace behaviour? What are your preferences around how time is used, work is structured, and communication takes place? What helps you build trust and relationships at work?
How do you react to cultural differences?
Being conscious of the biases and stereotypes we hold (to be human is to be biased) helps us recognise when they are actively influencing our intercultural interactions. If we find the behaviour or communication style of a different cultural group uncomfortable, confusing, upsetting or frustrating, it’s important to examine why before making conclusions about the situation. This will help us to step back and avoid reacting in a way that may damage relationships.
2. Learn about others’ cultural influences to better engage them from the start
In the hybrid workplace, we often have fewer opportunities for both formal and informal communication. Online calls and meetings can be challenging as we can’t sense the mood in the room or rely on non-verbal cues in a conversation.
Find ways to learn about common preferences and practices of the cultural groups you communicate with at work. Prepare for interactions by researching, reading, and talking to other people from similar groups, or to those who have experience working with them. Be mindful of biases to avoid forming stereotypes and rigid expectations about their behaviour.
In conversations, observe and listen mindfully to identify and understand intercultural communication preferences. It’s important to pay more attention to the words and tone people use. How direct or indirect are they in communicating messages, asking questions and saying no? Do they prefer to make small talk or immediately start work-related conversations?
Be open-minded and curious about differences in behaviour and preferences and show a willingness to listen. Show intercultural sensitivity and empathy by understanding the interaction from others’ perspectives.
3. Observe how others respond to your intercultural communication preferences
Notice how others perceive your behaviour and how they experience working and collaborating with you. This will help you adapt your behaviour in a way that resonates with the core values of both sides, making intercultural communication more effective.
In online communication, small misunderstandings can be amplified and cause barriers to effective intercultural communication. Use video as much as possible in meetings, especially in the beginning. Facial expressions and gestures will contribute to understanding and silences will be less uncomfortable.
Try to communicate your messages and meaning more explicitly. Invite people to share their thoughts with open-ended questions, such as, “I would like to hear what you think about this.”
4. Adapt your approach to succeed in hybrid intercultural communication contexts
Many cultural groups view trust as essential for effective collaboration and communication but require physical presence and proximity to build this. Spend time in online meetings finding common ground and developing social connections. Actively include other people in the conversation by using questions that require more than a yes or a no as a response. If appropriate in your work context, use social media platforms for more casual conversations with colleagues, enabling you to discover shared interests. This will help you build rapport, develop trust, and maintain relationships.
We tend to trust those who are like us; so, find ways to communicate that demonstrate tolerance for ambiguity and respect for others’ behaviour and preferences. Practise adapting your preferred communication style. This may mean learning how to find the right level of directness in your messages and become more or less flexible about time and structure. Remain aware of culturally sensitive topics you need to avoid.
Develop and improve intercultural communication skills with The British Council
Intercultural communication skills are vital to succeed in diverse, remote and hybrid workplaces. By being open, tolerant and curious, we can build trust and rapport, enhancing our brand and reputation.
Develop your teams’ intercultural competence through training and immersive application in intercultural contexts.
Find out how our Intercultural Communication Skills courses develop your teams’ intercultural competence to succeed in diverse, hybrid workplaces.