Globalization is picking up. As a result, more and more managers manage intercultural teams. From the Russian software programmer to the Korean sales employee: before you know it you have people from different backgrounds in your team. Dealing with cultural differences in the workplace is increasingly becoming one of the basic requirements imposed on leaders.

How you gain people’s trust and motivate them differs from culture to culture. In any case, avoid the following errors in intercultural management:

One-dimensional communication

Different people from different cultures use different communication styles. You may be the type of person who gets right to the point. However, a colleague may take a more circular approach and take longer to say what needs to be said.

The directness of the Dutch sometimes prevents them from properly estimating the communication of others. ‘In many cultures, information is given between the lines. That already starts in Belgium. We have not learned to communicate in this way, so what is really being said is often missed by us. In intercultural teams, managers will therefore have to pay extra attention” says cultural expert Sander Schroevers, intercultural management researcher at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam and author of the the book Intercultural communication.

Understanding the different communication styles and how culture influences them will help to ease frustration and promote understanding, not just for you, but for your colleagues, as well.

Blindness for small differences

A common mistake in intercultural management is that large differences are thought of, for example the extrovert American against the mysterious Asian. Research shows that most conflict situations arise from middle rather than small or large cultural diversity.

When there are major differences, we see many aspects that are strange to us, and we automatically take account of this in our actions. But if the culture of the other person is close to your own culture, there is a lot of recognition. You are more likely to do ‘normal’, i.e. what is normal according to your culture codes. But even then you can miss the mark.

“If your British manager tells you something is “interesting,” does he really mean he doesn’t like it? Why do your Dutch co-workers feel so comfortable talking back to the boss? Many of these differences — such as when to speak or stay quiet, the role of the leader, and what kind of feedback is most useful — may seem small, but if you don’t understand them, they can lead to ineffective teams, demotivated employees and a frustrated workforce.” According to Erin Meyer, author of The Cultural Map and professor at INSEAD.

The best managers have a solid grasp of these subtle cultural biases. They know how to help their team members adapt at key moments, but also to clearly communicate the systems that the team will use to operate effectively.

Cultural stereotype thinking

Finding and keeping talented employees is of big interest to most employees and employers. Talented, educated job-seekers usually aren’t interested in working for a company that doesn’t value diversity because they understand lack of diversity stunts growth and success. In addition to being unable to attract new talent, offices that engage in cultural stereotyping aren’t likely to keep skilled employees long either.

“What I see most often is that people start from assumptions about the culture of the other”, says Grethe van Geffen, Cultural and Diversity expert and Author of the book Past The Difference. “We think somebody is like this or that, because he or she is Polish, Spanish or whatever. Even if there is a certain truth in stereotypes, we ignore individual differences. This can cause many irritations”, says Van Geffen. “I always say: ask a question first. Do not assume presuppositions.”

“No matter how stellar your work abilities might be, if your co-workers are reinforcing harmful cultural stereotypes, you’re bound to be negatively affected and may eventually quit. This high turnover is expensive and can cost employers 50 percent or more of each ex-employee’s salary”, according to a 2005 study by AARP.

Employees often follow their management’s lead. Addressing and solving negative cultural stereotypes in the office starts with company leadership. Managers should be in regular communication with their staff about what’s working well and for improvement ideas. A system should be in place to monitor employee retention and factors that affect turnover. Conducting exit interviews when employees quit is a good way to get honest feedback. Companies should indicate they value diversity by employing qualified ethnically diverse leaders. This shows employees that cultural stereotyping is not present or tolerated.


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