June 8, 2019

The Missing Element of Intercultural Teams

Building trust among intercultural team members

Our previous article on Building Intercultural Teams presented the Four Elements of Inter-Cultural Team Building.

  1. Overcome Communication Barriers
  2. Build Trust
  3. Develop A Good Understanding of Common Purpose
  4. Develop Social Capital

However, after a decade of work with multinational teams in Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, our knowledge practitioners have found a missing element, without which it can be difficult to overcome communication barriers and get to building trust, common purpose, and social capital.

What they found is that managers and executives can feel like doctors that just landed on an alien planet, unable to perform a diagnoses because none of their past learning works. As a result, people who join inter-cultural teams often feel inadequately equipped to deal with the challenges.

That missing element is the ability to accurately diagnose the human terrain, and it should be the first step in building an intercultural team, because it forms the foundation of each of the four elements of building intercultural teams.

Step 1: Accurately Diagnose the Human Terrain

Managers typically start with the second element of building teams, along the lines of “Build trust and make the team process more effective.” But without overcoming the barriers to communication and understanding, it is difficult to build trust.

Your first question as the manager of an intercultural team should be, “Are our people equipped to accurately diagnose, and articulate the cultural and human terrain of the people they need to work with?”

When you have equipped your team with the ability to map the human terrain and the vocabulary to describe what they find first, they have a common understanding of the intercultural dynamics that are at play and the ability to express themselves from an intercultural perspective.

It is important that they develop these skills before they interact with each other as a team, because miscommunication in the early stages can have far-reaching impact on its ability to develop trust.

Step 2: Develop Trust

Trust is based on relationship of deep understanding. The Three Colors of Worldview and 12 Dimensions of Culture are great starting points, for this, because they help you to discover yourself and others at a cultural level that would otherwise have served as a barrier to communication. They help you to explain yourself and understand others at a much deeper level. They also create a common, systematic language that is devoid of the emotions that usually come with expressing yourself in situations with high volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

Step 3. Overcome Communication Barriers

Once the initial communication barriers are overcome, your team needs continued communication in order to build the deep understanding that promotes trust. This doesn’t just mean just transactional communication like what needs to get done, and how you should do it. It also means talking about “why.”

If you don’t communicate “why”, then people from different cultural backgrounds will interpret your activities in delineating the “what” and the “how” in very different ways. For trust to develop, you need to have a relationship of camaraderie and commitment with the people around you.

We talk about how to manage transactional and relational elements, as well as the “universal” and “situational” perspectives on relationships in Building Intercultural Teams: Part II.

Step 4. Develop Transactional and Relational Common Purpose

Most teams only define common purpose along transactional lines, with targets developed with Balanced Scorecard, OGSM (Objectives, Goals, Strategies, and Measures), or one of the other strategic planning frameworks.

However, two thirds of the world’s population comes from a community-accountability oriented culture where it is crucial to look at common purpose on the team from a relational point of view. Building common relational purpose in your team flows into a sense of belonging that is part of relational / social capital, which is also crucial if people come from a community-accountability background.

People have an innate need to belong; to have a sense of relatedness to their colleagues, and a sense of belonging to a tribe.

The Missing Element in Practice

When these four steps are followed, and the team is built on a foundation of a solid, deep understanding of each others motivators and de-motivators, the probability that the team will thrive is significantly higher than for teams who do not know how to analyse the human terrain of their project.

Check out more articles on our KnowledgeWorkx Resource  page.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.