By Jorge Vargas and Paul Bailey, RW3
Many factors influence the success of international assignments. Some are linked to compliance, cost or family issues. However, we tend to underestimate the impact of cultural issues and misunderstandings on the performance of international assignees and their integration in their countries of destination.
The question of culture is becoming even more relevant now that organizations are reimagining their work arrangements in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and offering new mobility options to their employees. The risk of cultural misunderstandings is not limited to expatriate assignments, however: it is also influencing international project teams, business travelers and employees relocated permanently. Addressing cultural issues and developing a global mindset will also increasingly be important to the feasibility and success of international remote working and virtual assignments.
Culture in the "new" world of work
Getting a handle on cultural issues means understanding why people behave the way they do. It prompts us to reflect how we see the world and what values, beliefs, customs and traditions influence our perception. Different values produce different behaviors and lead us to judge others based on our own cultural norms. These behaviors and subjective judgments can trigger open or unconscious misunderstandings, miscommunications and conflict.
The new world of work is relying on frequent virtual interactions. These give us fewer visual cues about what is really happening and can exacerbate existing communication challenges between employees.
Developing a global mindset
We define a global mindset as “the ability to reflexively adjust to cultural signals so that effectiveness is not compromised when working with people from other cultures and with different styles.”
In practice, this means asking ourselves:
- When and how should we flex our style to adapt to cultural signals?
- Are challenges with global colleagues culturally based?
- Do we think we are as effective working with other cultures as we are with our own?
- Do we think we have to compromise our values when working with different cultures?
Developing a global mindset implies having an awareness of cultural issues but also requires us to develop our curiosity about other people’s lives and to be willing to question our behaviors and thought process.
There is a clear business case behind the development of a global mindset in a mobile workforce.
- 82% of respondents to the RW3 Global Mindset Index Study indicate that developing a global mindset among employees delivers a positive ROI. Over three-quarters (79%) consider that it gives a business advantage.
- The study also revealed that a global mindset is two times more prevalent in high growth organizations.
The link between a global mindset and talent mobility
It is important that mobile employees have a comprehensive roadmap to help them understand destination cultures, business practices and more specifically:
- Grasp the reality and the challenges of life in a new culture
- Ensure productivity and manage business interactions in the new culture
- Plan ways to minimize culture shock
- Apply insights to specific real life work challenges
- Develop skills to support inclusive virtual teams
All teams need to recognize cultural differences and flex their workstyles to work effectively with a diverse team. They need to build trust, leverage diversity and generate an inclusive culture so that all team members can perform to the best of their ability. This is especially relevant for remote teams, who need structure to connect effectively despite being distanced.
||Implications for teams working virtually
hierarchical versus egalitarian cultures
|When dealing with a hierarchical culture, understanding everyone’s place in the hierarchy may require some research and preparation before starting virtual meetings. In a very egalitarian group, the focus should shift to establishing clear roles and responsibilities so that there is structure within the virtual team.
the group versus the individual
|Understanding group dynamics from a distance is difficult. Virtual assignees may require additional clarifications when dealing with group-oriented culture. A facilitator may be helpful to integrating virtual assignees into the group - especially if they originate from individualistic cultures and have a different mindset to their peers.
interpersonal versus transactional
|If building a personal relationship is essential for doing business effectively in the host country, virtual assignees without local connections will be at a disadvantage. An initial short-term assignment or several business trips may be needed to build local contacts before working virtually.
direct versus indirect
|Indirect suggestions, double entendre and contextual information are not easily conveyed during virtual meetings. Team members need to be aware of these pitfalls and set clear communication rules.
controlled versus fluid
|A rigid virtual meeting schedule may be challenging for individuals who have a more fluid relationship with time; they may well prefer on-going informal interaction in an office. Careful considerations should be given to the timing of virtual interactions, and virtual team members should agree on common rules about punctuality, the recurrence and structure of the meetings.
internal (self) versus external (external circumstances)
|Managers with preference for strong control and fixed rules may be uncomfortable with virtual working. Addressing their concerns and potential misconceptions is a precondition for the success of a virtual assignment.
formal versus informal
|Virtual teams need to agree on a meeting etiquette that is acceptable for all team members and which integrates the right level of formality.
status versus balance (personal life)
|How can you enhance your personal status when you’re just a distant virtual figure? Successful virtual working is a tightrope: it may enhance your work/life balance or have a negative impact on it, depending on support available at home.
Source: RW3's cultural dimensions based on the Intercultural Awareness Model (ICAM)©.
A step-by-step approach to thriving in the new world of work
Developing a global mindset is a process that starts with self-awareness, continues by increasing knowledge of other cultures and ultimately leads to practical strategies for adapting your work style:
- Recognize your own cultural values and biases.
- Get to know your personality traits.
- Learn about workplace expectations in other countries.
- Build strong and inclusive relationships.
- Develop strategies to flex and adapt your style as appropriate.
Adapting your style does not mean accepting everything. An international team’s success depends on establishing common rules that help team members work effectively and achieve their goals, regardless of their cultural background. However, it is easier to set rules for the good of a team when knowing what is driving the behaviors of its members and what’s behind their mindsets.
It is also important to remember that cultural skills are not always transferable: what makes an assignment successful in one country may not translate in another. The knowledge and cultural skills acquired in the previous country might give the assignee a head start, but not everything will be applicable in the new location. Developing a global mindset is about the ongoing questioning and reassessment of strategies rather than re-applying what worked in the past.
Thriving in the new world of work will require companies to build their global mindset capabilities and prepare their international employees for the virtual workplace, with an emphasis on inclusion, trust and appropriate communication styles.