Updated: Apr 24
Businesses and leaders need to engage with partners and customers from around the world especially in the fastest growing Asia Pacific region, and require bespoke and relevant skills to manage intercultural context and expectations. As companies continue to expand across borders and the global marketplace becomes increasingly more accessible for small and large businesses alike, 2017 brings ever more opportunities to work internationally.
Multinational and cross-cultural teams are likewise becoming ever more common, meaning businesses can benefit from an increasingly diverse knowledge base and new, insightful approaches to business problems. However, along with the benefits of insight and expertise, global organizations also face potential stumbling blocks when it comes to culture and international business.
While there are a number of ways to define culture, put simply, it is a set of common and accepted norms shared by a society. But in an international business context, what is common and accepted for a professional from one country, could be very different for a colleague from overseas. Recognizing and understanding how culture affects international business in three core areas: communication, etiquette, and organizational hierarchy can help you to avoid misunderstandings with colleagues and clients from abroad and excel in a globalized business environment.
1. Cross-Cultural Communication Effective communication is essential to the success of any business venture, but it is particularly critical when there is a real risk of your message getting “lost in translation or lost in interpretation”, be it in written or verbal mode of communication. In many international companies, English is the de facto language of business. But more than just the language you speak, it’s how you convey your message that’s important. For instance, while the Australians may value directness and brevity, professionals from India can be more indirect and nuanced in their communication. Moreover, while fluent English might give you a professional boost globally, understanding the importance of subtle non-verbal communication between cultures can be equally crucial in international business.
What might be commonplace in your culture — be it a firm handshake, making direct eye contact, or kiss on the cheek — could be unusual or even offensive to a foreign colleague or client. Whilst navigating cross-cultural communication can be a challenge, approaching AusAsia cultural differences with sensitivity, openness, and curiosity can help to create positive rapport and put all parties at ease.
2. Workplace etiquette Different approaches to professional communication is just one of the innumerable differences in workplace norms from around the world. For instance, the formality of address is a big consideration when dealing with colleagues and business partners from different Asian countries. Do they prefer titles and surnames or is being on first-name basis acceptable? While it can vary across organizations, Asian countries such as South Korea, China, and Singapore tend to use formal “Mr./Ms. Surname,” while Australians and Americans tend to use first names. When in doubt, erring on the side of formality is generally safest.
The concept of punctuality can also differ between cultures in a cross-cultural business environment. Different ideas of what constitutes being “on time” can often lead to misunderstandings or negative cultural perceptions. For example, when an American may arrive at a meeting a few minutes early, an Asian from China or Indonesia colleague may arrive 15 minutes or more after the scheduled start-time and still be considered “on time”.
In addition to differences in etiquette, some differences in attitude, particularly towards things like workplace confrontation, rules and regulations, and assumed working hours. While many Asians may consider working long hours a sign of commitment and achievement, some Westerners may consider these extra hours a demonstration of a lack of efficiency or the de-prioritization of essential family or personal time.
3. Organizational hierarchy Organizational hierarchy and attitudes towards management roles can also vary widely between cultures.
Whether or not those in junior or middle-management positions feel comfortable speaking up in meetings, questioning senior decisions, or expressing a differing opinion can be dictated by cultural norms. Often these attitudes can be a reflection of a country’s societal values or level of social equality. For instance, a country such as Japan, which traditionally values social hierarchy, relative status, and respect for seniority, brings this approach into the workplace. This hierarchy helps to define roles and responsibilities across the organization. This also means that those in senior management positions command respect and expect a certain level of formality and deference from junior team members.
However, Western countries, such as Australia, which emphasize societal equality, tend to have comparatively flat organizational hierarchy. In turn, this can mean relatively informal communication and an emphasis on cooperation across the organization. When defining roles in multinational teams with diverse attitudes and expectations of organizational hierarchy, it can be easy to see why these cultural differences can present a challenge.
4. Work to Build Personal Bonds Across Multi-Cultural Teams A great way to ease potential disagreements or conflict is to establish personal connections. While deep personal friendships may be impossible, there are methods to use that can foster individual connections and rapport. Take some time to encourage these personal relationships, which is going to help the entire team in the long run.
5. Address Conflict Immediately When It Arises Regardless of the type of multicultural teams or members, conflict is inevitable. If tension does come up, make sure to address it right away. This can help ensure a small, manageable conflict doesn’t turn into something that’s impossible to manage that would become a detriment to your company’s business productivity and performance due to communication breakdowns and cross-cultural misunderstandings. All business leaders and their teams need to understand on how to implement this multicultural conflict management issues. When they do this, they can serve as a positive and highly effective cultural bridge to minimize the effects of conflict and waste of productivity and profits.
6. Creating Successful Cross-Cultural Teams There are immense benefits offered by AusAsia cross-cultural teams in the workplace. While making these teams “work” may seem like an insurmountable challenge, this isn’t necessarily the case. There are many ways to predict and prevent serious issues. One of the biggest, miscommunication, is simply to manage by using engaging AusAsia cultural business strategist and coach to facilitate practical and easy to implement cross-cultural business strategies that is fully customized to your specific business objectives and desired outcomes.
The final outcome of a highly effective AusAsia Cultural business team(s) is all your leader and teams are happier, more productive and your organization will consequently become more profitable in the mid to long term.