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This article was published on June 15, 2016

How to maneuvre your global business around cultural differences

How to maneuvre your global business around cultural differences
Toshi Yamamoto
Story by

Toshi Yamamoto

As founder and CEO, Toshi Yamamoto oversees the day-to-day operations of ChatWork, the group chat tool for global teams, which is dual headq As founder and CEO, Toshi Yamamoto oversees the day-to-day operations of ChatWork, the group chat tool for global teams, which is dual headquartered in Silicon Valley and Tokyo. Yamamoto is a best-selling author on fostering employee satisfaction whose company was twice ranked as the best company to work for in Japan.

What if successful collaboration among globally distributed and culturally diverse teams depended less on the right mix of technologies and more on each team member’s sense of worldliness?

Chatting, messaging, conferencing and file-sharing programs make it easier to get work done over long distance. But there are many more – and often more subtle – barriers to effective collaboration than software or hardware. New insights into human interaction can help companies with global markets diminish these barriers.

Beware misinterpreted signs and symbols

Some of these barriers are more external, if no less difficult to manage. For instance, in the US the image of a honey bee can signify industriousness (“she’s as busy as a bee”), while in India it can signify rebirth. The color red means good luck in China and financial debt in the US.

In Japan, the number “4” is pronounced “shi,” the word for death. And the “V”’ sign means peace in the US In the UK it means “victory” (along with other much less polite interpretations).

Product and design teams working on products for world markets should thoroughly research the global meaning of the signs, symbols and words they incorporate into product designs and marketing messages.


Time-zone differences can create barriers as well. Web conferencing can work, unless you’re the one asked to appear poised and professional at 3:00 in the morning.

And there are language barriers: International meetings typically include translators. You just need to be comfortable listening to your overseas colleagues talk for ten minutes, to be followed up by the translator’s 30-second recap. To keep everyone on the same page, translators should paraphrase at the end of individual or short groups of sentences, not after long paragraphs.

Time to hire ‘citizens of the world’

The larger challenge is in dealing with more internal barriers – those that arise from the conscious or unconscious attitudes and beliefs of those who are doing the collaborating. According to Andy Molinsky, professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School, global collaboration improves when the parties involved have a certain sense of worldliness.

Writing in Global Dexterity: How to Adapt Behavior Across Cultures Without Losing Yourself in the Process, Molinsky describes the concept of “global dexterity” — the ability to “adapt your behavior to conform to new cultural contexts without losing your authentic self in the process.”

This quality, he says, is often exhibited by “the elites in their own countries, [who] get trained at elite schools, [who] get foreign assignments early in their careers.” But, he adds that “you don’t need to have lived in five countries and learned five languages to be successful across borders. You do need to be thoughtful and self-aware, and you need to be willing to take that leap into the unknown.”

It simply comes down to acquiring an innate sense of cultural sensitivity – an understanding rooted in experience of when cultural differences are helping or harming the collaborative process.

However it springs to life, this sense of global dexterity can serve as a valuable lubricant, avoiding or quickly returning to conflict-free communication and collaboration within the team.

Face-to-face meetings: More valuable than ever

With or without the presence of such cosmopolitan participants, effective collaboration can also be built on a foundation of friendship and mutual respect.

handshake old school

Prioritizing long-term benefits over short-term costs, companies should seriously consider investing in physical meetings among distributed teams. One or two days of varied activities, from actual work meetings to outdoor recreation to cooking classes, can quickly forge mutual respect and make team members more forgiving of one another’s unintentional or offensive cultural faux pas.

Cultural diversity at home engenders global awareness

Another ingredient of good global collaboration is happening right before our eyes all over the world. While perhaps not as noticeable or dramatic, our ability to become citizens of the world is changing every day as our cultures themselves become more global. There was a time when everyday interactions between people of different cultures were few and far between.

This still holds true in many less-open societies. In the US, “experiencing another culture” meant ordering pizza or Chinese food, searching through an ethnic grocery store for that one missing ingredient, or taking a taxi in New York.

But today, cultures are intermingling as they never have before in our cities and towns – and in our workplaces. It is not unusual these days for a single company to have employees from a dozen different countries. Whether we are all on the same work team or not, we cannot help but learn from these co-workers every day how to adapt to new cultural norms, how to pick up cross-cultural cues, how to accommodate another’s unfamiliar preferences.

There are so many things companies can do to improve global collaboration. They can teach their employees the meanings of other cultures’ signs and symbols. They can find better ways to communicate across multiple time zones and rediscover the value in face-to-face meetings.

But perhaps one of the most effective steps they can take is to make their workplaces more culturally diverse.

By creating hiring policies that bring people together from all over the world, these companies will enable their employees to acquire global dexterity as a normal part of their everyday interactions.

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