4. The Role of Culture

In addition to all of the other elements that people bring to your team, culture is an important one. In this lesson, we will look at the role that culture plays within a team and explore collaborative communication.

Teamwork and Culture

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Communication Issues

Collaborative communication can be challenging, especially for individuals who are not familiar with this approach. Tone of voice, body language, content, and form are all elements to consider. Helping internationally educated professionals with communication issues can be as simple as encouraging them to ask questions and to focus on the content of what is being said if they don’t understand someone’s non-verbal cues.

According to intercultural communication expert Sherwood Fleming, all English-speaking cultures use two different forms of speaking in order to express their thoughts and opinions: collaborative and authoritative. It’s worthwhile for everyone on your team to consider the differences between collaborative expressions and authoritative expressions. Authoritative expressions are appropriate when answering questions at a job interview, when an individual wants to demonstrate their competence and convince the interviewer of their abilities. However, team interactions require more of a collaborative style of communication. Here are some ideas about expressing an opinion using Sherwood Fleming’s collaborative approach:¹

  • Offer feedback. First, show that you are open to other team members’ opinions by offering them feedback about what they’ve just said. When you disagree, use phrases like: “I see your point of view, but…” or “I understand what you mean, but….” When you agree, use phrases like: “That’s exactly how I see it, and….” or “That’s a good point, and ….”
  • Add an “I” statement. Next, add in an “I” statement, such as: “I think,” “In my opinion,” or “From my perspective.” This tells the listener that you see the conversation as an exchange of opinions among equals, and that you’re not speaking as if you have authority over them.
  • Express your opinion. Now that the listener is receptive to listening to your perspective, express your opinion.

Dimensions of Culture

As an effective team leader, it’s important for you to understand the unique challenges that cultural differences bring to team behaviours—both your own culture, and the cultures of other team members.

In his research on comparative cultures, Dr. Geert Hofstede showed that there are some measurable characteristics of culture that can drive a person’s behaviour. And, because culture is one of the main sources from which we get our internal values and attitudes, it can play a critical role when it comes to teamwork. Hofstede identified five cultural dimensions:

  1. The Individual Dimension—measures the degree to which the decisions a person makes are for the benefit of the group or for the individual. This can affect a team member’s working style, whether it’s linear (e.g. completing a job and passing it on to the next person) or more collaborative (e.g. working on a project with others).
  2. The Power Distance Dimension—measures the difference in power between a leader and team members. This can affect how people from different cultures would describe the qualities of a successful leader. For someone not used to the western approach of having leaders participate on an equal footing with other team members, this can be confusing.
  3. The Certainty Dimension—measures how much information a team member has to have before they are comfortable making a decision. It is the extent to which people feel comfortable with rules, regulations, and controls versus unstructured and unpredictable situations.
  4. The Achievement Dimension—looks at how much someone values quality of life versus achieving goals. For example, some societies make extended parental leaves a priority, while others place more value on employees working overtime. These two approaches can lead to conflict if some team members feel they work harder than others.
  5. The Time Dimension—measures a culture’s approach to long-term planning versus short-term planning. Whether team members make decisions for immediate gain or for longer-term benefits may have an impact on how the team performs.2

As a team leader, try to learn as much as possible about each member on your team and consider the impact of the cultural dimensions above on team member behaviours. Be sure to communicate your expectations clearly to all team members.

Self-Reflection: Cultural Dimensions

1 Fleming, Sherwood. 2012. Dance of Opinions: Mastering Written and Spoken Communication for Intercultural Business Using English as a Second Language. Sherwood Fleming Communication.

2 Hofstede, Geert. 2001. Culture’s Consequences : Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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