Develop Your Team’s Cultural Literacy
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted July 01, 2011


In this post, I’ll share some advice for helping your team develop cultural literacy. Later, I’ll talk about how this translates into good behavior in team communications.

  1. Become an armchair anthropologist. Take the time to learn about the cultures represented by members of the team. Rather than observe differences at face value, probe more deeply to find out the root causes. For example, if German team members crave more details than the French seem to care about, discover why this is so. Think of culture as a huge iceberg, with the most obvious manifestations, such as language or cuisines, jutting out above the waterline. It’s what can’t be readily seen, such as values, principles and decision-making styles, that makes or breaks the ability to work as a team.
  2. Hit the books. Careful observation and active listening are great teachers, but if you have little time to galvanize a cross-cultural team, augment “on-the-job” training through other means. Try picking up a historical novel or rent a film made in the country of interest. Or find someone you know socially who can shed light on cultural differences and conduct an informal interview, where you can satisfy your curiosity in a relatively safe environment. In addition, there are many excellent books designed to help businesspeople understand and work through cultural differences.
  3. Assess the perceptions of team members early on. Ask team members if they’d be willing to participate in a survey designed to help all members discover which cultural differences might have the greatest impact on team performance. Questions might include: What challenges do certain cultures pose for you, especially those that may prevent successful teamwork? What would you like others to know about your culture?
  4. Agree upon which differences seem to be getting in the way. By discussing survey results, team members can zero in on areas that require the most work. Enlist the assistance of someone who has a solid grasp of cross-cultural communications to help interpret results. For example: Americans tend to value the quality of being decisive, which often leads to making snap decisions. Northern Europeans, on the other hand, tend to be more deliberate, involving more people and seeking information prior to making a decision. By understanding the differences between decision-making styles, team members can create principles and norms with a deeper level of awareness of the implications for the team.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy