In an environment of globally distributed development work groups, it has been my experience that mutual respect among colleagues for cultural diversity has been key to developing a healthy and productive team.

Cultural awareness can be defined as an ability to acknowledge and determine how cultural beliefs, upbringing, opinions and life experiences may influence the manner in which we communicate and interact with others. Some cultural differences may feel intuitive in practice, but many others will be less so. The potential for cultural differences to directly impact workplace productivity is enormous. Examples of differences might include:

  • how information or direction is given or received in the workplace.
  • if, how or when decisions are made.
  • if, how, or when help is asked from others.
  • method by which praise or criticism is provided.

Here is a specific impact example: Early in my management career, I was taught not to give feedback in a ‘sandwich’ (i.e. don’t position criticism between two statements of praise). I was told this would dilute the key message of constructive feedback. However, in some country cultures including Argentina and Romania, this approach can be referred to as giving ‘balanced’ feedback. Providing too direct and specific feedback in these cultures may at times create a sort of productivity paralysis as the individual team member wonders whether they are doing anything properly. I personally experienced this with an Argentina development team, needing to educate our leads in Canada with how to provide relevant feedback in a more culturally sensitive manner. It took more time but was much more effective in creating the desired results. Of course, we must also be very cautious not to generalize and stereotype based on culture, so I tend to apply these discoveries cautiously and only after discussion with my colleagues.

Cultural awareness is a topic upon which a wealth of material has been written in many formats. Here are a few steps you can take to get started:

  1. Educate yourself on the topics of country, work and social culture, focusing on the countries and cultures you’re currently working with. As an example, Geert Hofstede is a Dutch social psychologist who has done extensive research in an area called ‘intercultural dimensions’; you can learn more about his findings from this website site amongst numerous others:
  2. Talk about it! To start this conversation with new teams, I create a custom presentation, educating them on culture and distributed development best practices, sharing specific practical examples related to the countries partnering. We then brainstorm on how the team perceives culture can or is impacting the manner in which we are interacting and whether they agree with the examples shared in the presentation. This dialog usually results in updated educational team culture materials for newer team members and is always interesting, informative and often fun too.
  3. Travel is essential to building stronger relationships. Make sure you are encouraging a certain amount of team travel to and from the various geographic locations to help foster cultural awareness through personal experiences. (This is also a key best practice of distributed development for other reasons)
  4. Keep this culture conversation going. Remind your team to keep challenging their assumptions around culture and what might or might not be getting said, especially in group settings with quieter team members.

To close, remember to celebrate the diversity of our respective workplaces; see our global diversity as an opportunity to appreciate and bring benefits, versus a risk to manage. Being open to consider and learn about different mindsets, country cultures and beliefs and deepening overall cultural awareness can only leave you and your team members more personally fulfilled.

Any feedback, opinions, or specific tips you’d like to share on this topic are welcomed!

Original article on linkedin

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