Working with globally distributed teams is exciting, rewarding and sometimes complicated. Many challenges of international business are logistical in nature. Still, many stem from dynamics involved when people from different cultures work together, and these dynamics are often rooted in the complexities of intercultural communication.
Leaders are responsible for managing the challenges and complications of international teams. As such, leaders must be intercultural communication experts. Eastern Washington University’s online Master of Business Administration (MBA) with an International Business Concentration can help students develop this expertise through exploring subjects like international business, leadership and business communication. The intercultural communication skills students can gain from these interdisciplinary studies are essential for managing high-performing, globally distributed teams.
What Is Intercultural Communication?
In defining intercultural communication, the Association for Talent Development states:
“Intercultural communication involves the sharing of information across different cultures and social groups, including individuals with different religious, social, ethnic, and educational backgrounds. It seeks to understand the differences in how people from a variety of cultures act, communicate, and perceive the world around them.”
Other definitions focus on the creation of shared meanings through intercultural communication processes. Taken together, intercultural communication concerns both understanding and navigating the differences in how people from different cultures interact and communicate.
Why Is Intercultural Communication Important in International Business?
Many cultures have different norms surrounding workplace etiquette, scheduling, social structures and professional communication styles. All of these can present differences in how members of international teams interact and communicate with one another, how they interpret shared communications and how they expect to be communicated with.
Examples can be as simple as cultural differences regarding physical contact like a handshake, eye contact or other forms of body language. People from different cultures may also be more or less inclined to share personal information with coworkers. The concept of a healthy work-life balance can vary greatly around the globe. Informal styles of communication commonplace in one culture may be perceived as rude or inappropriate in another.
These are just a few examples of how cultural norms regarding communication can vary greatly. Overlooking these differences and forcing a singular culture’s set of communication norms on a culturally diverse, international team of workers can have disastrous results.
On the pragmatic level, intercultural misunderstandings in basic communications regarding expectations, timelines and goals can result in inefficiencies, lower productivity and more. In addition, social and interpersonal miscommunications can lead to conflict and hinder team morale, collaboration and the innovation that high-functioning teams drive.
Communication challenges are always important considerations when managing teams. The nuances of intercultural communication in international business can exponentially complicate matters, and linguistic differences among team members can be communication hurdles. Thus, fostering effective intercultural communication within globally distributed teams is an essential goal of leaders.
How Can We Improve Intercultural Communication?
The first step in establishing strong intercultural communication within global teams is developing cultural competence. Leaders and team members alike need a deep understanding of one another’s cultures and customs to respond to different communication norms.
Importantly, developing this understanding also requires that people identify and deconstruct potential barriers to effective intercultural communication. For example, culturally specific constructs like ethnocentrism, stereotypes and assumptions about certain behaviors can inhibit intercultural communication when projected on others.
Start with simply being cognizant of cultural differences. In a paper on intercultural communication in global business, Anastasia Dzenowagis writes, “We need to use our cultural differences to create a competitive advantage for our projects and companies.” Exploring and celebrating the ways cultures differ can lead to new ideas, learning and innovation. By adding their perspectives to the whole, team members can build the shared meanings that underlie effective intercultural communication.
On a simple and personal level, humor and tone can differ greatly between cultures and languages. Sarcastic humor, for instance, is often specific to a culture. It can easily be perceived as negative, especially in written communications, when delivered without body language. Focusing on positive, clear and direct communication and avoiding culture-specific humor and colloquialisms can help keep intercultural communication constructive.
As a final note, the importance of intercultural communication reaches far beyond team communications. Prospective clients and customers can logically be offended by culturally insensitive messages. Strong intercultural communication skills are vital for developing and maintaining the relationships with partners on which global business is built. Whether interacting with team members, clients or business partners, demonstrating cultural awareness and respect through positive intercultural communication is essential for success in today’s interconnected, global marketplace.