Intercultural communication. What managers of international teams need to know?

Business not always values enough the power of multicultural teams. Specialists from other cultural backgrounds can bring a fresh and unconventional look to the tasks. It is very valuable these days as it enables to create global products. The condition for effective communication within the team is the cultural competence of the employees themselves, but especially of the managers. You can acquire it by yourself, but it can take many years. It’s easier to learn it from professionals, who study cultural differences on a daily basis.

According to the research carried out by the Center For American Progress, over 83 million employees will be entering the labour market over the next 20 years. One third will be immigrants and their children. The economy will face the risk of collapse without them. These American data indicate where the labour market will seek labour resources. A few years ago, Polish employers thought that they would manage with the help of only local employees, but the good economic situation quickly revised these assumptions. Due to the labour supply shortages, Poland is one of the largest markets for economic immigrants in Europe.

The problem of multiculturalism in the workplace appears in everyday situations, especially those requiring joint problem solving. It turns out that the tensions are built in the team due to misunderstanding of cultural differences. How to overcome these barriers? How to recognize different cultural values among employees in a multinational team?

Ineffective communication leads to tensions

An intercultural competence expert, Dr. Barbara Bartczak, believes that there is no single answer to these questions. In international practice, such a definition only appears when an employee, manager or customer is dissatisfied and leaves. The employees get frustrated and problems at the intercultural level appear. Generally, the phenomenon of interculturality is a topic that cannot be defined explicitly – says Dr. Bartczak.

Intercultural competence helps to move efficiently around the intricacies of international cooperation. In turn, learning about its elements makes it easier to find cultural differences. Intercultural competence helps to define and recognize human behaviour and problems. What are these competences? Dr Barbara Bartczak, who carries out the project of intercultural communication workshops within the scope of the European Institute For Intercultural Development, explains that this range of different skills allows for good, professional communication with the customer, employee, colleague or boss. We have different models of cultural competence. Professor Jurgen Bolten from the University of Jena says that cultural competence is not something that can be learned just like that. This is not the number of trips, it is not a language mastered to perfection or knowledge about other countries and their history. These elements are needed, but not the most important – adds Dr. Bartczak.

Do you want to meet the employees’ needs? Gain the necessary competences

According to the quoted German researcher, such intercultural competences consist of individual competence (e.g. motivation, attitude), social competence (e.g. empathy, communication skills, tolerance), professional competence (professional experience, professional knowledge) and strategic competence. If we add language skills and polycentrism to all these skills, then we can talk about the right mix of competences.

People in different countries have a different approach to work, even if they have a common goal, they try to achieve it differently. An interesting phenomenon in this context is the dedication to work, that is, dedication to the profession. A manager equipped with appropriate competences will quickly notice the differences in the approach to tasks.

For some, it will be such a mixture: private life and business life, e.g. “At work I feel as in a family, I make friends there, I nurture bonds, I stay after work for a beer, I go out for coffee. Like in a family” – explains Dr. Bartczak.

In other cultures, the dedication to work will be understood only as the acceleration of processes, i.e. for example work at a much faster pace and the performance of tasks in the shortest time. Some want to talk and socialize, it is important for them. Others want to work quickly and this is the heart they put into the work – adds Dr Bartczak.

The workshops organized by a team of enthusiasts of this topic help to acquire intercultural competences. The test site is carefully selected. It’s the Netherlands. One of the commercial centres of the world. There, for hundreds of years, the influences of different cultures combined. Working in multicultural teams is nothing new for Dutch companies. Despite globalization, which to some extent creates universal business rules, employees in individual countries are attached to their specificity of work.

One man’s meat is another man’s poison

Dr. Barbara Bartczak recalls the scene from one of the company’s events organized for the heads of HR departments from around the world. During the meeting, a German talked about how to achieve a goal in his company. He emphasized that achieving success is possible if everyone has the right to vote and the freedom to say what they think. The audience enthusiastically welcomed it.

But the event was also attended by two friends from Japan and China. They were not so eager to applaud German methods of operation. Why? Because for them to speak openly, especially in relation to the boss who manages them, is a total faux pas. They need something completely different. Not speeches like: “we’ll win!, we’ll do it!”, but gently bringing the matter out and discussing the topic face to face – adds an intercultural communication specialist.

We often use stereotypes in our relations with employees from other countries. However, we should not make hasty conclusions. It is a mistake to believe that the more distant the country, the greater the cultural difference. Differing cuisine, customs and traditions affect this misleading picture. But when it comes to work, it may turn out that a neighbour from a country located a few dozen kilometres away from us has a different approach to the performance of tasks than we do.

Poor communication harms the company

– Over the recent years, countless examples from business life have shown how poor intercultural communication can lead to poor organizational performance, to the backwardness of the organization – emphasizes Dr. Bartczak.

Intercultural competence is not something that can be learned once and for all. The environment, tools and methods of work are changing, so you need to acquire new skills all the time. Cooperation with the representatives of various nations is an undeniable asset for business, it increases flexibility and openness. In addition, if a company wants to exist on the global market, it must offer a product that will be accepted all over the world, and it cannot be created in a closed, mono-cultural team.


Orginal written by Tomasz Bazan in Polish: