How to handle cultural differences in meetings

Speak English Article 10

Interacting with people whose cultural background is different from your own is the norm in many businesses. Identifying and bridging cultural gaps across remote teams can be a sensitive issue, so much so that it’s tempting to dismiss its effect on performance. Team leaders tend to take the “It will all work out in the end” attitude, avoiding addressing the “soft” issues which can seem uncomfortable and irrelevant compared to the pressure of meeting goals. But in doing this, leaders of global teams can miss a golden opportunity to openly explore an issue that can impact a team’s ability to collaborate and deliver successful outcomes. We asked various team leaders who work with individuals drawn from a variety of different cultures for some practical recommendations.

Address the issue openly

Early in a team’s formation, host an open, honest discussion about cross-cultural differences.

This type of open exploration gives people a safe place to express their concerns and ensures that they don’t remain silent about issues they have. The opportunity for individuals to express their view clearly signals that you take the issue seriously and you’re keen to empathise with the issues in order to achieve a great team performance. Once you’ve hosted this first session, keep it as a brief but important part of every meeting, checking back with individuals that they’re comfortable to signal if cultural differences are getting in the way of team performance.

Respond with practical solutions

Typical topics raised vary enormously:

“I come from a culture which is very hierarchical and I’m not used to questioning senior managers”

“I’ve always been taught to value independence and autonomy at school so find teamwork difficult.’’

“Silence means approval to me, but disagreement to Rosa.”

“I’m worried that no one will understand my accent so don’t want to speak out.”

Listen carefully to these concerns, indicate you understand them and, most important of all, come up with clear, practical solutions to address them.

Article, videos and blogs which explore these issues are widely and freely available on the internet. By demonstrating that you take it seriously and that many people share these issues, you’ll normalise the conversation and help people feel comfortable about raising them.

Helping for non-native speakers

Research suggests that adhering to a clear schedule and agenda,is particularly advantageous for non-native English speakers. Advance preparation builds confidence, prevents miscues and is more likely to encourage participants to engage equally.

Ask people – particularly those who might find operating in English challenging – to summarize regularly what has been agreed, checking back for full understanding.

Ask open questions to test agreement:

“What is the key point here?”

“Do you like this idea?”

If you are struggling to understand someone’s accent, ask them to repeat the point slowly and check back to see if everyone else has understood.

Make sure you follow up offline with practical, enjoyable ways people can work on their pronunciation. Bear in mind that non-native speakers aren’t always aware of how clear – or otherwise – they sound in English. They aren’t always best-placed to self assess on how clearly they come across.

Smart technology that gives accurate, unbiased feedback can be hugely helpful here, and users can practise privately, in their own time. The goal is to create successful, culturally diverse teams. Speaking clear, confident English helps to achieve that.