Dr Rob Yeung is a chartered psychologist and coach at consulting firm Talentspace



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The globalisation of business means that multicultural teams are becoming increasingly common. Greater cultural diversity – accompanied by a multiplicity of personalities, values and attitudes – is linked to higher business creativity and innovation, according to a recent analysis of prior research studies led by Jie Wang at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.

However, misunderstandings as well as prejudices about cultural differences can cause conflict, delays, poor team morale and other barriers to organisational results.

Being sensitive to broad differences can be helpful in navigating cross-cultural situations with greater success

Unequal power

An ability to understand major cultural differences may help both leaders and employees to understand and better utilise such differences. Researchers have identified one enduring difference between nations called power distance, which is the extent to which less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country accept that power is distributed unequally.

Countries such as Mexico, China and Saudi Arabia are high on power distance, suggesting that subordinates expect that their superiors hold a great deal of power. Employees in high power distance countries tend to respect greatly, or are even deferential, towards those in positions of authority.

The Netherlands and UK are medium on power distance. New Zealand and Denmark, meanwhile, score low on power distance, suggesting that subordinates expect much less of a figurative distance between themselves and their superiors. People in low power distance countries are more willing to question those in authority and expect much more participation in decision-making.

One practical implication of power distance is that it affects employees’ willingness to challenge wrongdoing. Researchers Albert Puni and Sam Kris Hilton at the University of Professional Studies, Accra in Ghana have observed that individuals who accepted greater levels of power distance had lower intentions of engaging in whistleblowing. That suggests that high levels of respect for authority extends not only to positive actions by seniors within organisations but potentially negative actions, too.

Individual interests

Another commonly measured national difference is individualism, which is the extent to which individuals are expected to take care of themselves. Countries including the US and UK are high on individualism, suggesting that people within such countries focus more on the pursuit of personal goals. People may think more in terms of what ‘I want’ or ‘my goals’.

India and Spain are medium on individualism. China and Nigeria are low on individualism, suggesting that more importance is given to collective goals. In low-individualism countries, people put greater emphasis on what ‘we want’ and ‘our goals’. Relationships and loyalty among group members tend to matter more in low individualism countries.

Specific differences

Being sensitive to these sorts of very broad differences can be helpful in navigating cross-cultural situations with greater success. However, consider that there are also more specific differences that you may wish to learn about, such as: legal and economic systems; religious beliefs and marriage systems; and the rules for expressing nonverbal behaviours – for example, how to greet others or how to receive gifts.

Consider asking questions of people with the view to understanding their preferences and concerns

Such knowledge can only be acquired through effort. That may mean reading materials and watching videos both about the culture and by people from within the culture. Consider also sensitively asking questions of people from the culture with the view to understanding their preferences and concerns.

Remember, though, that no single individual can be totally representative of any culture. Spending time both informally and formally with different individuals is the only way to appreciate the ways of that culture.

Change your behaviour

Having accurate knowledge about another culture clearly matters. However, researchers led by Michigan State University’s Linn Van Dyne have found that the ability to change one’s behaviour also matters for those – such as expatriates – who wish to be truly effective in their cross-cultural interactions. This can include behaviours such as:

  • being able to use pauses and silences effectively to suit different cross-cultural situations
  • altering verbal characteristics such as rate of speech and tone of voice appropriately
  • changing facial expressions, bodily posture and the use of hands.

Improving cross-cultural competence is not merely about being more pleasant to people from other cultures. It requires an investment of time to learn about both broad differences such as power distance and individualism, as well as specific differences pertaining to day-to-day working life.

However, individuals willing to put in the effort will likely be more able to harness the creativity of their colleagues and increase business innovation.