By Corporate English Solutions

05 December 2022 - 15:25

Intercultural competence

L&D teams are increasingly working across borders and functions. Leaders of these teams need to be able to develop trust, connection and credibility with diverse stakeholders to drive collaboration and team performance. 

How well equipped are you to lead intercultural teams in 2023 and beyond? Discover how the A-frame tool can help you improve your intercultural competence, leverage difference and lead more effectively.


Reading time: 7 minutes

Rajni had been excited to receive the job offer as Head of Learning for a medium-sized property company. It had expanded into new regions in recent years, and she had been taken on to review projects and processes and streamline ways of working. 

That was, until she met one of the regional L&D teams. Their ways of working and communicating were confusing for her. She found it difficult to get to know the team, share her ideas and generate enthusiasm for them.

Sound familiar? 

Today’s workforce is becoming more global. With country agnostic recruitment and cross-border working, teams have become increasingly diverse. Plus, new patterns of work, such as hybrid and remote, and the growing need to work cross-functionally, are changing ways of working.

The British Council identified intercultural skills as one of the top 5 skills for L&D leaders to develop for 2023. One which leads to benefits for you, your stakeholders and your organisation. 

How strong are your intercultural skills? 

Read on to discover how the A-Frame’s three steps can help you understand and leverage difference, boost your intercultural competence and effectively lead diverse teams. 

Bring your A-game to work.

Step 1. Analyse and acknowledge observable differences 

Rajni believed in the importance of managers getting to know their team members personally, and vice versa. When she tried making small talk in their weekly calls, she was faced with silence or one-word answers. When she made suggestions, she was confused by their reactions.  

This frustrated Rajni, who wished they could be in the same office to have informal catchups and discuss her ideas for improvement. After a few months, she began logging in late for some calls, and even found herself answering an email or two while the team was speaking. 

The A-Frame helped Rajni identify her own contribution to the situation. She learned how to use the first three A steps for culturally intelligent communication.  

Explore assumptions, acknowledge and articulate observations.

A culturally intelligent communicator:

  • recognises and questions their assumptions and biases to reframe their perceptions (What observable facts are my assumptions based on? What could they mean? What else could they mean? How would others interpret these facts?
  • identifies how the other person’s communication and work preferences compare and contrast to their own
  • acknowledges their observations of the other person and themselves 
  • expresses observations to others, along with the impact on their work and relationship.

Rajni had assumed the regional team didn’t like her or want to get to know her because a couple of them had applied for the role she was now in. She had thought their silence meant they disagreed with her ideas and wanted to continue using the same well-established processes.

Now she realised their work and communication preferences may simply be different from her own. She had always been successful at building trust through personal connection and relationship-building. This team preferred to ‘get down to business’ without spending time on relationship-building; they preferred building trust through successful task completion, reliability and expertise. 

She knew it would be difficult to directly express these observations to the team. So, she decided to ask them to complete a communication preferences questionnaire. She shared the team’s profiles by email to give them a chance to reflect on them. She also asked them to be prepared to share their observations and impact on their work in the meeting. 

Step 2. Ask questions to uncover non-observable differences 

Even though Rajni now understood that the team’s cultural influences led to a preference for task-focused teamwork, she was still unsure why they weren’t interested in her ideas. Especially as some of them often turned their cameras off in meetings. She found this frustrating as it made it even harder to interpret their silence. 

The A-frame gave her more clarity. She understood that rather than assuming, avoiding and feeling irritated, she could ask questions to explore why they weren’t engaging. 

 A culturally intelligent communicator:

  • knows that non-observable differences are often greater than observable differences and must be explored together
  • asks culturally sensitive probing questions to discover, dig down and uncover the gaps between their and the other person’s perceptions
  • asks clarifying questions to find out communication and work preferences, needs, concerns, challenges, intentions and goals
  • listens deeply to the answers to better align their communication to the person they’re interacting with.

As this team was uncomfortable with a lot of questions, she knew her approach had to be culturally sensitive. She asked a few, focused open questions that would help her better understand why they didn’t engage with or discuss her ideas. To save face, she gave them the option to think about the questions and reply by email. 

Through this, she discovered that they felt questioning and giving feedback to senior managers was disrespectful. They were used to leaders making decisions and giving instructions and didn’t know how to respond when she asked for feedback. 

Step 3. Align and adapt your style

Now Rajni better understood the team’s work and communication preferences, she could move to the next stage: adapting. 

A culturally intelligent communicator:

  • re-aligns and adapts communication and behaviour 
  • uses empathic behaviour to acknowledge positive intent, feelings, cultural needs and mutual needs
  • uses positive and objective language to keep the process respectful, reciprocal and moving towards achieving shared goals. 

Rajni respected their preference for task focus, arriving on time to meetings and moving quickly into the agenda. She ensured all meetings were scheduled within work hours, and that she completed her tasks within deadlines.

Rajni knew that if she felt she was the only one adapting her style and preferences, she could experience fatigue, frustration and annoyance. She introduced structured brainstorming sessions in meetings, using innovative brainstorming techniques and tools. This would make the most of the team’s experience and create conditions for sensitive and psychologically safe conditions for productive collaboration. As the team started to trust her expertise, they began to open up to her ideas. 

Now, Rajni looks forward to the weekly team meetings. She is beginning to know her team members better and the improved collaboration is leading to greater creativity and innovation. Using the A-Frame helped her navigate out of ‘avoid’ and ‘antagonise’ mode to align, adapt and achieve. 

With increased intercultural competence and tools and techniques to help you lead multicultural teams, you can also equip yourself for success in 2023 and beyond. 

Discover how our Intercultural Skills (CQ) courses can support you and your team to develop cultural intelligence for improved engagement, collaboration and performance. 

Find out more >

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