Imagine this: You’re on a team with people from Germany, Italy and Japan. The German team member is quite direct in communication style, the Italian teammate is loquacious and animated, and the Japanese colleague tends to be quiet and circumspect in communicating. Setting aside the language challenges, how do you authentically collaborate with these three people?
The term “authentic” is defined as, “not false or copied; being genuine and real.” If you think about that definition and envision yourself on this multicultural team with people who have significantly different styles and expectations of behavior, you realize how complicated and challenging it can be to retain authenticity while adapting your style to the different cultures present on your team. How can you collaborate effectively?
Do you insist on retaining your unique communication style? Do you adapt to any one or all of your colleagues’ styles? Do you try to mirror the style of your teammates? The challenge is to learn to flex your style while remaining authentic.
What is Authenticity in a Multicultural, Virtual Situation?
You probably know people who act genuinely no matter the circumstance. They’re trusted by colleagues and are able to collaborate well because they don’t sacrifice their authenticity when placed in situations that require them to honor the different cultures present.
How can you maintain your authenticity and gain the confidence of your colleagues to enhance your ability to collaborate effectively? The secret to effective collaboration on intercultural virtual teams is to understand how culture impacts behavior and communication and find a way to bridge those differences while remaining authentic. What does this require?
We think of it as a three-fold process that continues and builds over time:
- First, it requires an understanding of culture — especially the cultures on your team – and an understanding of culture’s impact on behavior.
- Second, it necessitates self-awareness and an understanding of your personal history and culture’s impact on your behavior and collaboration preferences.
- Third, it requires you to flex your own style to bridge the cultural differences on your team with confidence, so you can maintain your authenticity.
It’s not easy to do. However, these skills can be learned, and you can gain confidence through practice. The more you practice, the more effective you become. At the same time, these skills need to be honed before your first encounter with your multicultural team in order to begin gaining the trust of your teammates.
Step 1: Learning About Culture’s Impact
Every team member needs to understand the cultures present on their team and how they might impact each person’s expectations and actions.
You cannot overemphasize the importance of making sure that every member of the team is aware of the different behavioral styles associated with their teammates. This ensures that all teammates recognize the power of culture and the impact various cultural norms may have on the team. Additionally, teammates will feel more comfortable knowing that others are acquainted with their background and culture.
In other words, as every member of the team becomes aware of how culture impacts their behavior, it becomes easier to understand one another. For example, teammates will understand why their Japanese colleague may need to seek greater consensus, or why their Italian teammate may need more time to build a relationship and establish trust with others.
Obviously, in order to collaborate, you need to figure out ways to bridge those differences
Step 2: Becoming Self-Aware
You now have an appreciation for culture and its influence on behavior. The second step in the process is self-awareness. Authenticity begins with examining your own preferences, capabilities and background. In other words, it’s crucial to recognize who you are, your preferred communication style, your likes and dislikes, how you react to others, what things frustrate you, and what situations bring out your best performance.
It’s not very complicated, but it requires conscious focus and effort. As you can imagine, it’s fundamental to understanding your interactions with different colleagues.
For example, if you know you tend to be a relationship-oriented person, and you’ve done some research about the cultures of your multicultural team members, you may discover that many of your teammates prefer to be transactional. You now have the benefit of being aware that others might see you as “wasting time” when attempting to establish relationships rather than getting right down–to–business.
Similarly, if you know you tend to be a risk-taker when it comes to business decisions, you may find that your colleagues are more hesitant to take risks. Then, you’ll be prepared when you suggest embracing a new practices and others are resistant to the idea.
It’s not difficult to see why this step is critical in the process of achieving authenticity, but how can you do it? There are simple assessments you can take that provide guidance. You may also begin by thinking about how and when you are most effective and make a list. It can be as simple as:
- I like people who…
- People who do … frustrate me.
- I am most productive when…
- I prefer to work in an environment that…
The trick is being able to see yourself as others see you. However, in an intercultural context that becomes a little more complicated because you’re being looked at through a different cultural lens.
Step 3: Remaining Authentic in Order to Collaborate with Different Cultures
There are many reasons why maintaining authenticity is critical, but perhaps the most important is that authenticity can be recognized by all people, and the absence of it will impair trust. Without trust, you will not achieve effective collaboration. Here’s an example of what can go amiss:
A Dutch individual was on a virtual team with French and British colleagues. The group was developing marketing materials for a new service their division was launching, and their ability to collaborate was crucial to meeting tight deadlines.
The Dutch member was aware that his tendency toward a very brief, direct communication style was likely to be different and potentially off-putting to his colleagues who were more indirect and contextual in their communication. He quickly realized that his tendency to be blunt and succinct would not encourage his colleagues to collaborate easily with him. He attempted to be more ambiguous and obscure in order to mimic the others’ styles.
Unfortunately, he discovered this approach wasn’t working. The team leader asked him if something was distracting him during the team discussions. His teammates sensed he was uncomfortable, and his attempt to act differently was negatively affecting his performance. He had compromised his authenticity and impaired the trust of his colleagues, making them wonder if he was being attentive.
When he explained this to his team leader, the leader suggested that he find a way to relax and contribute more spontaneously to the discussions.
This incident illustrates how difficult remaining authentic in multicultural scenarios can be. In this case, the Dutch teammate needed to flex his style slightly while being genuine about his communication preference. To be successful in his collaboration, he could have toned down a little and checked with his colleagues to see if he was being too direct or brief. He also could have been transparent from the beginning of the formation of the team and discussed his natural communication preference and his intention to adapt to his teammates’ dispositions.
How you react to what pleases and displeases you is what your colleagues will be seeing most often. If you can find a way to tell people who you are in a non-judgmental manner, your authenticity will be appreciated, and your collegiality will be genuine. People are able to see through facades and, if they feel that you’re not genuine, they’ll have more trouble trusting and collaborating with you.
How Can Authenticity Be Unleashed?
The foundation of authenticity is to recognize how other people are not like you. Varying cultures have different styles and behavioral preferences, and it is helpful to identify how you can accommodate their differences while not giving up your own way of approaching situations.
You must have the ability to flex your style to bridge differences while being true to your own values and needs. This means that, while you give your Japanese colleague more time to build consensus and allow your Italian colleague the opportunity to spend time building relationships with other team members, you do not need to change who you are. The ability to understand yourself and your behavior means you don’t relinquish your values; you just incorporate ways to adjust to others.
If something or someone is challenging, an authentic person will not pretend that they’re not troubled by it, but will collaboratively communicate an alternative approach. If you can identify these differences and articulate them without making others defensive, you will be successful.
Of course, training will facilitate the ability to recognize behavioral preferences and enable team members’ ability to communicate authentically in a constructive manner. Training and coaching in these situations can benefit teammates by providing an opportunity and space to contemplate these questions, teaching exercises to practice flexing communication styles and bridging multicultural differences, and developing effective techniques for constructive interactions to enable the most effective collaboration on multicultural teams.
In short, there is no secret to effectively collaborating on teams with an array of cultures. However, to remain authentic requires understanding, communication and effort.