Hi, I’m Sally Walker, director of SW Career Coaching Limited and I’m a career and intercultural coach. I’ll be guiding you through this video, which is designed to help you as PIs recognise the influence that you can have on creating an effective culture within your multicultural research teams by consciously using intercultural competence. Please refer to the accompanying workbook, as well, for full information and further resources.
As a result of engaging with this recording and the accompanying workbook, I hope that you’ll appreciate that culture is something that can be created. It’s a fluid concept. You’ll raise your self-awareness of your own intercultural preferences in order to better understand others, and with this knowledge be able to build more effective, collaborative working relationships with your postdocs and others. Finally, you’ll learn how to constructively handle unexpected intercultural incidents.
In this video, I’m going to cover the main areas outlined on screen. I’ll talk about organisational cultures and how intercultural incidents arise where there is cultural diversity. I’ll share a dimensional framework to help you identify your intercultural preferences. Then we’ll use the SPLIT model as a tool for building an effective multicultural team culture. Finally, I’ll share the 3R model to help you interpret and learn from unexpected and challenging intercultural incidents. Please refer to the recording which is entitled ‘Intercultural competence and how it can help you thrive in multicultural work settings’ for full definitions of what we mean by culture, intercultural competence and multicultural work settings.
As a reminder, culture is the norms of behaviour that build up when two or more people are in a group together or, in other words, the way we do things around here. If you joined a group initially, you might feel like an outsider until you’ve learnt the unspoken rules and norms. Intercultural competence or having a global mindset is described as the knowledge, skills and attitudes that are required to get along effectively with an individual or a team with a different cultural identity to you.
In other words, it’s having the skills and attitudes that enable you to fit in more rapidly and effectively into situations of diversity. Organisational cultures in academia and beyond can vary widely depending, in part, on the different sets of values that they each seek to embody. So for more on this topic, do refer to the ‘Hofstede Insights’ article, which is in the resources section.
This organisational culture influences the norms of how relationships are built, how communication typically takes place, how trust is created and how time is perceived. So, as I mentioned earlier, cultures are fluid rather than fixed, and as a PI you have the opportunity to influence and even create the culture within your research teams.
In addition, you can encourage postdocs in your teams to find out more about the organisational culture that they’re applying to both in academia and beyond by carrying out informal information gathering meetings with individuals who currently work there. They should aim to speak to a cross-section of people, including those who’ve only recently joined as they are likely to have experienced some sense of culture shock on arrival. They could enquire about the form that introductions and interviews tend to take and what the working culture is like, and so on.
So when you interact with somebody who’s operating to a different set of cultural norms to your own, it’s possible that you’re going to experience a sense of surprise, tension or even conflict, and when these cultural experiences are unexpected, we might call them intercultural incidents. Just be aware that they’re most likely to happen in the situations outlined on-screen – during the application and interview stage if you’re involved in these, when introducing oneself to new colleagues or researchers, when any gift exchanging is involved and during appraisals, meetings and via email.
So a dimensional framework such as the one outlined on-screen based on the work of Erin Meyer in her book ‘The Culture Map’ can be a really helpful tool for raising your awareness of your own behaviours and preferred ways of communicating and interacting. This knowledge may enable you to interpret and appreciate someone else’s perspective and behaviour without falling into the cultural trap of othering, which is labelling others as wrong because their preferences or behaviours are different to your own. It may help you to interpret some of the unexpected intercultural incidents that arise in multicultural situations.
So in your workbook, as I describe each of these dimensions, you could place an X to mark your own typical natural preference on each of the eight scales. So the first dimension is about how you prefer to communicate based on your cultural identity and background. You may be a low context communicator, which means you’re explicit and direct. Communication is precise, simple and clear and messages are expressed and understood at face value. ‘I think we should do it this way,’ is an example of low context communication.
Alternatively, you might be a high context communicator where you’re more implicit and indirect and where messages are implied rather than plainly expressed. So a high context communicator might say, ‘I wondered if we could possibly consider other alternative ways of doing this.’ Or you may be somewhere in between on the scale. Place your X. If you’re a low context communicator, you might perceive a high context communicator to be confusing, difficult to read or understand or know what they really want or mean.
The high context communicator might feel a low context communicator is being rude for being so direct and prefers their own style, which they perceive as more polite and subtle. So the second dimension is around evaluating and how you naturally give negative feedback, whether this is done directly and frankly or indirectly, whether messages are delivered softly and subtly and positive messages are often used to wrap around negative ones. Place your X in your workbook.
The next dimension relates to persuading and whether you prefer initially to focus on principles or applications first. Principles first means that you present a theory or a concept first before moving to practical recommendations. Applications first means you prefer the reverse approach.
When presenting to audiences with different cultural backgrounds to you, this is a really important thing to find out about ahead of time. An American colleague of mine, as an example, who has a preference for taking action and making recommendations started with these in a presentation recently to German colleagues and was a bit frustrated when the Germans interrupted her early on and asked her to present the background methodology to the project first off, because they preferred principles rather than applications first. Fourthly, on the leading dimension, do you naturally prefer an egalitarian, flatter organisation structure or a hierarchical or multi-layered organisation where status and seniority are often of great importance?
What about on the deciding dimension? Do you prefer consensual approach, sharing decision-making in a group or a top-down approach where decisions are made by individuals, very often the manager, about what’s to be done. On the trusting dimension, what’s your cultural preference? Do you naturally get stuck straight into a task and build the necessary working relationships to get things done as you go along or do you prefer to spend time initially building key relationships and trust by sharing meals or having informal coffee meetings and then progressing to the task?
On the seventh dimension, are you someone who views disagreement and debate as positive for the team – open confrontation is acceptable and appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship? Are you someone who prefers to avoid confrontation as you view this as inappropriate and believe that it will damage group harmony or negatively impact on your working relationship?
Finally, where will you place your X on the scheduling dimension? Do you have a linear approach to time where project steps are approached in a sequential fashion, completing one step at a time, the focus is on the deadline and sticking to the schedule? Here the emphasis is on promptness and organisation. Or is your cultural preference for flexible time where project steps are approached in a fluid manner, changing tasks as problems or opportunities and needs arise? The focus is on adaptability and flexibility is valued over structure.
Please remember that in doing this exercise there is absolutely no right or wrong answer. All of these preferences can be viewed positively if we’re aware that when someone has a different preference to us, they’re not doing so to be deliberately difficult or rude, but as a product of their cultural upbringing, background and personality. So take a moment now to reflect before we move on about any specific intercultural incidents that you’ve experienced which relate to one or more of these eight dimensions.
Where have someone else’s preferences been different to your own? Was this during an interview process or meeting new researchers or whilst making a presentation? How can you now re-evaluate the incident so you have a greater empathy for someone else’s preferences? It may be tempting sometimes to believe that you’ve got no control over the culture of the academic institution you work within.
However, as noted earlier, culture is fluid and you have a key role as a PI in shaping the culture of the research teams that you’re leading or that you’re part of. Take a moment to consider and note down what actions you could consciously take to cover off the following areas which would help you to build a strong collaborative team culture. What are your expectations of team members and how do you communicate them? How do you consciously build trust and strong relationships with your postdocs? How do you make everyone feel equal and welcome? How do you celebrate success?
In the workbook, I’ve included a list of practical strategies to guide your thoughts when addressing these areas, particularly when you’re working with someone in your team who’s struggling or you feel is being particularly challenging. The aim is to find common ground together. In order to achieve this, you may well have to show vulnerability and certainly empathy as a team leader.
Leading a multicultural team of postdocs requires you as a PI to demonstrate high levels of intercultural competence. If you’re successful at building an effective team, the results and benefits to the team members and your academic institution will be significant. The team will collaborate well together and colleagues will appreciate and value the differences in others. They’re likely to see the potential that comes from new perspectives, and research has shown that, typically, a multicultural team will outperform a homogenous one. So as a part of demonstrating your intercultural competence as a leader, you could make sure that you’ve considered the following factors when setting up a new multicultural team or working with an existing one.
Use the SPLIT model – which stands for structure, process, language, identity, technology – to help you remember the key issues to consider. So in terms of structure, whether you’re setting up a team or joining an existing one, first consider what structures are in place to support effective communication between multicultural colleagues who are potentially sitting in different locations and possibly different time zones. Identify successful multicultural teams that already exist in your organisation or elsewhere and learn from their best practices.
You might want to start by organising a team meeting. The purpose of this group gathering is to build a greater understanding of the skills and knowledge that exists amongst members as well as informally creating a sense of community and collaboration. You could use a personality profiling tool such as Myers-Briggs to identify individual strengths and provide a common language amongst the team. This type of assessment tool is available via the Prosper website.
You might incorporate some intercultural training into your meeting to help members identify their current levels of intercultural competence using the materials covered elsewhere in these intercultural resources to help them to avoid negative stereotyping and place the emphasis going forward on finding common ground rather than differences.
Time should also be taken for informal relationship-building either with small breakout groups where information about cultural customs might be shared, for example, by conversation or even using a game. It’s helpful to agree on some team ground rules at an initial team-building meeting whether this takes place physically or via a video link. Aim to establish how the team prefers decisions to be made, agree on language requirements, consider cultural issues such as whether you’re going to celebrate birthdays or other milestone events amongst the group.
In terms of P for process, take time as a team leader to build trust with your team members at an individual level. Find out what motivates them, where they share common ground with you and where there are areas of difference. You may need to communicate more frequently with a multicultural team than you might have previously been used to.
Make sure you’re clearly clarifying your expectations of each member and give them time with you to ensure that these have been thoroughly understood and agreed upon. So a brief regular call can help to achieve this and build trust and team involvement.
Take time to listen and understand, first of all. As work progresses, you could instigate regular team and individual feedback sessions. Try to deliberately incorporate time for informal relationship building into these meetings at the beginning or at the end, as well as covering the more formal task-related issues. As the leader, be alert to signs of trouble amongst the team and aim to defuse these tensions early on rather than avoiding them.
If you’re providing feedback to postdocs, consider how to do this in the most interculturally appropriate way possible. Certain cultures will expect and appreciate direct clear comments, while others might interpret this as being harsh and critical and would prefer a more indirect, potentially a more sensitive approach. You could ask individual postdocs what their preference is to avoid making incorrect assumptions. You may find that you need to factor in additional time for discussion about key issues or decisions amongst multicultural team members. These sessions might even create some constructive disagreements amongst postdocs.
As the leader, aim to role-model asking constructive questions of the team. This opportunity enables the team to learn from one another, to gain new perspectives and potentially to generate different and hopefully better solutions. That’s the real power and benefit of a diverse team. Finally, in terms of processes to be aware of, do consider how you’re going to celebrate success within your multicultural team. Some members will appreciate and even require individual thanks and praise to maintain motivation, whilst others will find this very embarrassing and will prefer recognition at a group level.
Use your early conversations with team members to find out which approach sits most comfortably culturally with them. In terms of L for language, if you have a wide variety of languages spoken in your team, you’ll no doubt be aiming to find a common language which, ideally, all members will be able to use with ease. In addition, encourage the team to learn at least a few key phrases in the other languages.
Where the chosen language of the team is the native tongue of some colleagues, but not others, do remember this might cause the native speakers to have more power and influence. Non-native speakers might not be able to contribute in a meeting as quickly and might therefore appear to be quieter and less involved. To minimise these issues, agree on some language ground rules.
Ask the native speakers to raise their self-awareness and dial down their dominance, while non-native speakers should be asked to dial up their engagement. Ideally, you’re seeking a balance of contributions in your multicultural team. Try to use pictures, graphs or data support to support a conversation in the team. Avoid colloquialisms and slang as well as words with multiple meanings.
Keep your language as clear and straightforward as possible and provide a number of specific examples. Rephrase what you’ve heard someone say to check that you’ve understood correctly and to help other team members to reinforce their own understanding. Normalise that asking someone to repeat themselves if they have a strong accent is fine and shouldn’t be viewed as a loss of face.
Do allow for preparation time ahead of meetings for team members working in non-native language. Also allow for extra time to proofread material and to revisit a final decision multiple times. This will lead to the best decisions and help to avoid miscommunication. In terms of I for identity, find ways for each team member to share and celebrate their own personal cultural identity in the multicultural setting. Gather team members together and ask them to talk informally about what makes their culture unique in terms of factors such as food, holidays, customs, and so on. Do make sure you’ve got a list of all the relevant celebration days around the world and an understanding of differing work patterns so you can schedule meetings with these in mind.
For example, typically, in Middle Eastern environments people work just a half day on a Friday. Do also consider dietary restrictions based on cultural identity when planning a team meal out. Remember that every culture and individual nurtures their own communication style using non-verbal signals, facial expressions and body language. Don’t make assumptions about the meaning of these, but double-check either with the colleague concerned or an intercultural mentor.
For example, shaking the head is not universally used to indicate disagreements, so we need to take care. Finally, in terms of T for technology, keep a heightened awareness towards the ways that you can use technology to build trust and promote fairness and involvement and harmony amongst the group. Consider your choice of meeting start times and varying these to accommodate different time zones. You also need to keep this in mind when setting deadlines for your team members. Watch the ‘Top Intercultural Tips’ video with Workbook on the Prosper website to gain lots more tips about using email in an effective way.
Even with all these intercultural tips and strategies, it’s more than likely that you’ll still encounter unexpected, surprising situations or reactions, which we call intercultural incidents. It can help to consciously reflect on or even journal about these experiences to learn from them. You could use the 3R model from Warwick University as a framework. As you can see from the example on-screen, first of all, note down as factually as you possibly can what’s said and any non-verbal body language involved.
Next, reflect on the situation, try to spot the problem. Why did it happen? Did it arise due to language difference, conflicting communication styles or different cultural values and assumptions? Consider using the dimensional framework outlined earlier to help you identify the issue.
Then, finally, re-evaluate the situation. What are alternative interpretations about what’s happened? Can you take a different perspective and practice putting yourself in another person’s shoes to exhibit intercultural empathy? How might you now repair things, if necessary, to demonstrate your intercultural resilience?
In the workbook, you’re going to find further examples of intercultural incidents, which you could analyse using the dimensional and 3R models to enable you to view situations from multiple cultural perspectives. I hope that, as a result of this video, you can now appreciate the influence you could have on creative and effective collaborative culture in the teams that you lead and that you’re part of.
I hope that you’ve got a greater awareness of your own intercultural preferences so that you can build strong, empathetic relationships and that you have gained models and tools that help you to constructively learn from intercultural incidents that naturally arise. Please do refer to the list of resources, including the work in the workbook for further information on the topics that we’ve covered here. Finally, please do stay in touch and get in touch if you have comments or questions.
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