Crossing Cultural Barriers to Achieve Superior Team Results

Interview with Bhaskar Pant
Executive Director, MIT Professional Education


Culturally diverse teams produce more creative, innovative group results, compared to those in more culturally homogenous groups. In this interview with Bhaskar Pant, the Executive Director of MIT Professional Education, he shares with our readers how to communicate and manage their culturally diverse teams towards success.


Q: Different cultures can lead to misunderstandings when communicating and managing colleagues from different countries. As the Executive Director of MIT Professional Education, what are your recommendations on how a leader can communicate effectively to his/her team in a multinational workplace? What is the biggest challenge in getting this right?

A: Let me speak here also as a lecturer in the field of “intercultural communication in global business”, who has taught seminars and courses on the subject to quite a diverse set of students and professionals at MIT, at Harvard and at universities outside the US.

Assuming the team leader is already aware that cultural differences may be playing a role in communication between and among members in his/her team, the first and most important thing a leader should do is to get to know team members from their individual cultural framework perspective. Are they more individualist or group-oriented in their approach to work? Are they more task or relationship-oriented? Do they come from a very hierarchical background? These are some of the indicators that will inform a leader on the type of communication approach to take with each of the members, and extrapolate that to the whole team to facilitate a more effective interaction and decision-making process. Often leaders and supervisors do not invest the time needed to discover what drives individuals from a cultural point of view; they focus almost entirely on the employees’ work backgrounds and technical skills. This leads to an imbalance in relationships and less than optimum productivity from teams.


Q: Time can be interpreted in different ways by different cultures. How does one’s culture affect their perception of time? What are the steps for one to understand the culture of time?

A: Anthropologist Edward Hall divided up the world into two broad cultures – “High context” (where the emphasis is more on what is around the communication) and “Low context” (where the emphasis is on words and the communication itself). The low context cultures, particularly those in the west, think of time as a limited resource not to be wasted. Punctuality and planning are super important to them. Those in high context cultures, particularly in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, view time, perhaps even more spiritually, as “limitless”; they view success as defined not so much by whether you accomplish things in a defined timeframe, but by whether you achieve favourable outcomes in relationships while accomplishing a task – a particularly hard concept to understand for so many in the west, who are guided doggedly by time and deadlines, and are more transaction-driven. It’s not that those in high context cultures do not take deadlines seriously; they do so, however, in the context of furthering or enhancing relationships for the long term.


Q: You’ve mentioned in your article “Different Cultures See Deadlines Differently” that deadlines often cause misunderstandings in a multinational workplace. How do these misunderstandings affect business relations? How can a leader emulate the importance of understanding different time cultures for his team to work comfortably productive?

A: Picking up from my response above, when certain team members let deadlines slip, it can have trust ramifications within the team and possible contractual ramifications on the outside for missing deadlines. To forestall such negative consequences, a team leader must ensure that there is group buy-in to timelines ahead of the initiation of any project; that those from “higher context” backgrounds are sensitised to the possible negative impact on relationships with their colleagues, superiors and/or clients that can result if time commitments are not kept. Over a period of time, the importance of meeting deadlines becomes embedded in the ethos of multicultural teams operating in “low context” business environments.


Q: In today’s globalising world, digital communication is common in business relations. What are the possible difficulties that leaders may encounter in dealing with digital communication across cultural barriers? How can leaders overcome these difficulties?

A: While the internet can be viewed as the “great equaliser” from an access point of view, giving one the ability to reach someone across the globe just as rapidly as someone in the next cubicle, it also poses substantial risks in terms of the phraseology and tone used in electronic communication with those from another culture. There is often an assumption made that there exists a common lexicon for digital communication across the globe, when in fact, even if English is the shared language of communication, cultural factors impact elements such as expressions, vocabulary and formality used in a message. These are factors that would be at play also in an in-person interaction, except in digital communication, one would not have the luxury of being able to read body language or hear voices. And with the recent explosion in tweeting and texting, the brevity of words and/or abbreviations used in digital messages, tend to accentuate even further language and cultural differences – and therefore the risk of miscommunication. This is particularly true when you are communicating with those from the 50+ age generation who may not be as familiar with the latest “twitter vocabulary” deployed by those in younger age groups. In my view, the solution is always to err on the more conservative, formal side of language use when e-mailing across cultures, particularly when you are communicating with someone for the first time, and to use “International English”, i.e. English void of regional expressions or slang, as much as possible. This approach can change once you get to know more about your counterpart’s communication style.


Q: What management skills can you suggest for leaders and their multinational team to make their workplace more productive and inclusive?

A: Showing by results the value and power of diversity in teams in a multinational workplace, is a must for a modern-day leader, particularly at a time when divisive forces seem to be operating more strongly, particularly in the political arena. Overcoming language and cultural differences in a multicultural team is never easy, but once team members get over the initial obstacles through a determined, leader-inspired effort, the collective power and strength of diversity is unleashed. When encountering cultural differences, a good attribute would be not to jump to any quick conclusions, but to allow time to listen and draw out what is behind a perspective or behaviour that you may view as different from yours…a process that may seem too laborious at the outset, but one that ultimately leads to better understanding and cohesiveness in a group. Research bears out consistently that on the average, culturally diverse teams produce more creative, innovative group results, compared to those in more culturally homogenous groups.

To bring about appreciation of cultural diversity and its strength, a leader should encourage frequent, informal employee get-togethers where people feel safe to talk about their cultural backgrounds, the challenges they face and/or have overcome when dealing with those from cultures different from theirs – all toward enhancing intercultural empathy and inclusiveness among team members.
Q: How can business leaders ensure that every culture can be heard and accommodated in a multinational workplace?

A: Lead by example, and cite personal difficulties that the leader himself or herself may have experienced in accepting certain cultural differences earlier on, and the positive results that came about due to a subsequent “open mind” approach. Citing personal and others’ success stories are a strong influencer in encouraging diversity and inclusion in a team or workplace.


Q: How can one achieve true intercultural competence in a multinational workplace?

A: Firstly, one must confront the reality that achieving true intercultural competence in a workplace is not an easy task; people have pre-conceived notions and stereotypes in their heads that cannot be changed overnight. It requires a concerted effort over a period of time on the part of the leadership of an organisation that is willing to speak of and show by example the virtues of intercultural competence in a highly-globalised business world. Committing to and holding frequent training workshops where members of the leadership team would showcase examples of the success of intercultural competence in terms of increase in creativity, productivity and business results, would breed greater tolerance and empathy among employees and encourage them to adapt more readily to a multicultural workplace. While these workshops would cater to existing employees, making intercultural training a core part of new employee induction would be one of the most productive investments an organisation could make today. I would recommend also that annual employee rewards and recognition events include those who have crossed cultural barriers and achieved superior team and business results.

Q: From a communication perspective, what are your thoughts on the recent victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 US election?

“Understanding broad areas of discontent in a diverse and divided nation, and then promising to address those using the simplest possible non-political language, got through to a lot of people, given the messenger was charismatic, highly successful in business, and non-political.”

A: Understanding broad areas of discontent in a diverse and divided nation, and then promising to address those using the simplest possible non-political language, got through to a lot of people, given the messenger was charismatic, highly successful in business, and non-political. Whether 140 character messages on social media are the most effective way to communicate with the nation and the world for a US president, only time will tell. For now, long form, more nuanced and more substantive communication seems to face an uphill battle, at least on the political scene.


Q: How do you think harnessing the skills and attitude of a business leader would help a politician in leading not just the private sector but also the rest of the nation?

A: Business leaders are measured by their success, almost on a day to day basis; therefore, they tend to be highly results-oriented, problem-solving-oriented – traits that are useful in both the business and political worlds. Business leaders also have to negotiate within their companies, with clients and other diverse set of stakeholders that can influence the efficacy of outcomes; how well you negotiate is a trait that is certainly tested in politics on a daily basis, and the outcomes there have the potential of affecting many more lives than would be the case generally in the business world.


Bhaskar Pant is the Executive Director of MIT Professional Education, where he oversees MIT education programs designed for working professionals around the world. He has taught courses and seminars on intercultural communication for over a decade to students and professionals around the globe, including engineering students at MIT and management students at the Harvard University Extension School. Previously, Mr. Pant served in senior management positions for media, media technology and education organisations such as Time Warner/ CNN (in India), Sony Corporation (in Japan and the US) and the Educational Testing Service (in Singapore).


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