Why is intercultural competence necessary?
As you may know, Language Partners and BBi Communication merged at the start of this year. We are now an organisation that not only offers Intercultural competence training, ut also has offices in four countries and colleagues from many more. Because of this, we felt it would be worthwhile to use our merger as an example highlighting some of the similarities and differences we see among ourselves. Building intercultural competence is a must for any organisation that has multicultural teams or works with them. Unsure if your organisation falls under multicultural? Take a look and see.
What are cultural dimensions?
When working with, or within, a diverse team there are some key characteristics to be aware of. By that, we mean cultural dimensions. A cultural dimension is a way to measure and understand how different cultural groups act, think and feel. Consider different ways to communicate, how much someone is willing to take risks, or how people express their feelings. These are culturally influenced behaviours and thought patterns that, one way or another, are seen all over the world.
While these are not meant as a one-size-fits-all, always-perfect label, they do help us understand how cultures can be similar or different. To learn more about culture and cultural norms, click here. You’ll also see some examples of cultural dimensions not covered in this article.
By reading on, we’ll expose you to some ways in which the four cultures that BBi offices can be found in are similar or different. During our internal cultural integration discussions, one of our colleagues reflected after we had some time to get to know new colleagues:
“Since we started working together we’ve collaborated a lot on our Intercultural services. In doing so we’ve been able to further put our own knowledge and training into practice.”
To help share our experience with you, we’ve chosen two, of 10, dimensions to offer insights into the similarities and differences we have faced since our merger. By highlighting hierarchical distance and emotional expression, we aim to help you gain awareness of the importance of developing intercultural competence.
What does hierarchical distance mean?
Hierarchy is a system in which members of a group, or culture, are ranked. In the professional world, an easy example is employee > manager > CEO. The cultural dimension of hierarchical distance describes how people feel about the way power is shared, and if they think that it is okay for some to have more than others. Some issues that are affected by this are, for example, management style, power being in one place or not, and how much employees are encouraged to take initiative.
What approaches to hierarchy are seen within BBi Communication?
BBi Communication has offices in four countries: Finland, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. We also have colleagues from the USA, Italy, Greece, and Ireland to name a few, so as you can guess, we see a variety of approaches and perspectives. To keep it simple, we’ll focus on the cultures based on the country the office is in.
Finland, The Netherlands, and Sweden all fall on the end of the ‘short’ side of the hierarchical distance scale. This means that, typically, the working culture does not have much distance between people, regardless of their role or title. People are often comfortable disagreeing with their managers and feel that everyone should be able to speak their minds.
Spain falls almost at the other end of the scale, earning them the label of ‘long’ hierarchical distance. This means that there is a bigger distance between employees, managers and higher management. This can be seen in employees being less willing to express disagreement with those above them, though respect is often shown.
What type of hierarchy is best in a multicultural organisation?
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to hierarchy. Nor can there be. Both long and short hierarchical approaches have their advantages and disadvantages, just as they are well suited to some people, and not to others. When a multicultural group is brought together, it is important for conversations to be had. Taking the time to understand what each person, team and organisation requires, and desires, will start the necessary process of building an inclusive culture.
How does the expression of emotions differ across cultures?
We use the dimension ‘expression of emotions’ to indicate the different ways individuals and cultures keep their emotions inside or express them to others. Those cultures that are usually known for sharing their feelings would be placed on the ‘externalised’ side of the scale, while those cultures that are typically known for keeping their emotions to themselves would be placed on the ‘internalised’ side of the scale.
What approaches to emotion are seen within BBi Communication?
Typically, cultures of Latin or Mediterranean origin are known for being expressive and passionate. With that in mind, it might not come as a surprise to learn that Spain is near the externalised side of the scale. In this culture, it is expected that people will speak up and share their thoughts and feelings.
In the Netherlands, emotions are typically internalised. This does not mean that feelings are not shared, but the difference is enough that some cultures may perceive the Dutch as not being very expressive emotionally. It is probably also not surprising to learn that both Sweden and Finland again share a place on this cultural dimension scale. These two Scandinavian countries fall on the end of the internalised emotion scale, surpassing the Dutch in perceived internalization.
After we merged, the famed Dutch directness was noticed by some of our colleagues. It was the perfect ice-breaker. We brought the stereotype forward, discussing why honest and direct communication is seen as polite and respectful in the Netherlands. We also had discussions about how other cultures may feel about this style of communication – how it might be helpful or challenging at times. Conversations such as these are important, not only for getting to know one another but also for enabling benefits such as effective collaboration and innovation.
Cultures that are perceived as internalising their emotions are also typically labelled as task-focused. This means that the priority in a professional relationship is the task at hand. The flip side of this is relationship-focused cultures. Cultures which typically externally express their emotions are also typically those that are relationship-focused.
To be clear, cultural dimensions are great for understanding and discussing our general differences. They often offer a good starting point, but should never be the only tool used. Cultural dimensions won’t fit every context, or every person.
How do you effectively mix cultures with differing approaches to expression?
Now that we’ve been working as a more cohesive organisation for a while, we have gained additional, hands-on experience in the work we do. As mentioned above, there is not, and cannot be any one-size-fits-all approach to creating an inclusive multicultural culture. Combining varying approaches to emotional expression requires communication, respect and understanding to meet the unique needs of each individual, team, and organisation.
At BBi Communication we know that having discussions about cultural norms is a good starting point. We combine that with specific activities that encourage the development of the pillars of inclusion, social cohesion and trust. This allows us to engage and leverage cultural differences, turning them into business advantages.
Beyond the additional experience, being a part of a merger has allowed us to engage with a diverse mix of cultures. Being able to effectively offer each person a safe and inclusive space to contribute has allowed us to tap into benefits such as increased collaboration and innovation. Through the creation of awareness of cultural norms – our own and those of others – we often see an increase in inspiration as a result. Such awareness is also a contributor to the increased productivity and collaboration that comes from well-supported multicultural teams.
Of course, any team or organisation that is multicultural, or works with multicultural groups, will have to go further. That’s where we can come in! If you want to learn more or see how we might be able to unlock your competitive edge, book a free 30-minute chat with us.
If you’re interested in reading more about our merger, you can read the announcement or an interview with the two people who led us to this point.