How to adapt communication for cultural differences, and why is it so important?

Online meeting

Clare Cromarty, Diversity and Organisational Development consultant at EW Group, analyses how to adapt communication for cultural differences, and why so many organisations are prioritising cultural adaptability.

Our globalised world brings great new opportunities for international business – but with new opportunities come new challenges. Foremost among these is the problem of adapting to cultural differences in business, from the small-scale, to the large.

With the rise of business languages and translation software, communicating between international teams might seem easier than ever before – but understanding goes much further than just listening.

Different cultures often entail different working practices, and without cultural adaptability, even the most well-intentioned attempts at inter-office cooperation can create confusion, or even unintended offence.

Even within individual offices, culturally dysfunctional teams can have a major impact on productivity, company cohesion, and recruitment. Bringing teams together and helping them collaborate efficiently should always be a focus for management – especially following a company merger or acquisition.

Whether your organisation is a cross-national powerhouse with offices in capitals across the world, or a smaller venture looking to improve engagement within a multicultural team, building an adaptive organisation culture is a core element of success for workers in the modern day.

But to work flexibly, we must be able to accommodate different cultures – and know how to adapt communication for cultural differences.

What is cultural adaptability?

Cultural adaptability (a.k.a. cultural intelligence) is an individual’s ability to vary communication and management styles depending on the culture and environment in which they are operating.

It’s an understanding that others may have different styles, approaches, or even attitudes depending on their cultural background. These differences vary from proper styles of address, to business scheduling – in many cultures, meetings are even expected to start hours later than agreed!

Recent studies have even shown that effective collaboration between international (or intercultural) teams is hampered by more than language barriers – without an adaptive organisation culture, non-verbal cues or implicit instructions can easily be misinterpreted by different teams, causing chaos, and wasting your organisation’s time and resources.

Cultural adaptability training

Maybe you are already aware of cultural clashes within your own organisation that need addressing. In which case, jump straight to our Cultural Adaptability training page for details of how we can help. The training looks at how perspectives can vary when working with colleagues from different countries or even regions of the same country.

We also look at how workplace cultures can form within different teams (even in the same country, or even the same office), and how potential conflicts can arise due to a difference in style. Your HR department may, for example, have an entirely different work ethic and approach to the L&D team, yet they need to co-exist and work well together. Cultural adaptability often means acknowledging that different working practices which are clearly understood can often produce the best results.

Why do we need to be culturally adaptable?

Why is it so important to be culturally adaptable? Cultural adaptability empowers us to work around potential challenges to find the best outcome. Not only is this important in international communication, but even individual teams can benefit from learning how to adapt communication for cultural differences in varied professional situations.

For example, understanding that teams in different time zones or geographic regions might have alternative working patterns (such as Dubai’s Sunday-Thursday work week, or differing cultural approaches to lunch breaks) is vital to effective teamwork and time management. Not only will adapting to cultural differences in business contribute to a more productive office, but a much more successful international outlook.

Adapting communication for cultural differences

Language is an important aspect to consider when working across new cultural geographies and learning how to adapt communication for cultural differences.

An example might be a German colleague moving to a London office to oversee the launch of a new product; even with perfect English, they might feel excluded in casual conversations with their new colleagues, and not always understand office idioms or colloquialisms. Cultural adaptability is even more important at an organisational level – as the Harvard Business Review notes, failing to adapt organisational methods for differing cultures can incur significant financial losses and employee dissatisfaction.

Office divisions can even exist where employees from various regions of the United Kingdom use different terms and phrases – which have the potential to exclude those who do not understand their meaning. Similarly, during company mergers, conflict can occur when various office cultures are brought together, which is why adapting to changes in management is crucial for success, and in minimising team disruption.

However, with an adaptive organisation culture, different cultural perspectives or linguistic backgrounds are a creative boon to any office. Research has shown that culturally diverse (and adaptable) offices are more creative and better at problem-solving than their competitors – different patterns of thinking or working, used together, can make any organisation stronger and more collaborative.

Company-wide awareness

When it comes to your diversity and inclusion agenda, an awareness of cultural difference is vital, especially when planning global aims.

Your diversity and inclusion strategy might require global leadership buy-in, for instance. While some leaders might view D&I as more or less important due to the narrative around equality in their cultural zone, successfully adapting to cultural differences in business will minimise confusion and facilitate streamlined cooperation.

Adapting to cultural differences in business is not about favouring one set of cultural norms over another. Instead, it looks at how we can respect and value difference whilst identifying strategies to overcome potential challenges, and even utilise those differences for a more effective workplace. And when seeking to build an Inclusive Culture, it’s important to look at how these everyday norms can create inclusion (and exclusion) in the workplace.

How to adapt communication for cultural differences

Providing training for your team around Cultural Adaptability not only demonstrates your organisation’s commitment to diversity, but improves office communication, and better facilitates international cooperation with other organisations.

Creating an adaptive organisation culture by learning how to adapt communication for cultural differences is even more important when it comes to building both trust and successful working relationships with companies around the globe.

Adapting to cultural differences in business brings benefits far beyond company mergers or acquisitions – it’s in all of our interests to be culturally adaptable, both in our work and personal lives. Being versatile is a requirement for many modern roles, such as those in client-facing situations collaborating with different working cultures. Being able to successfully negotiate these differences ultimately makes for much happier and more fruitful business relationships.

It might be part of your wider diversity and inclusion objectives to create not only a diverse workforce, but an inclusive workforce. Being culturally adaptable improves office cultural versatility; a vital (and very profitable) talent for any sales team.

Adapting to different clients and environments, where even normalised actions like handshakes could cause offence, is a key skill for any 21st Century organisation. While one of your suppliers might adopt very informal greetings, another might find this completely inappropriate. Having this cultural intelligence and adaptability means you can work effectively and amicably with a diverse base of clients and shareholders alike.

With recent studies suggesting that long-term corporate growth is now tied to integrating adaptive organisation culture, the question remains; how has your organisation prepared for the future? In a world where business leaders are prioritising intercultural cooperation, adapting to cultural differences in business is more important than ever.

How can we help you adapt communication for cultural differences?

Our Cultural Adaptability training is suitable for all staff, especially for those – such as sales teams, managers, leaders and front-line staff – who work with clients, stakeholders and customers with potentially different cultural norms.

It’s no surprise that with almost 30 years of experience, EW Group is the premier diversity consultant for many of the UK’s leading organisations.

Our half-day training course can be bespoke and personalised to focus on the cultural pressure points of your organisation – maximising your team’s ability to overcome cultural barriers which they may have already experienced first-hand.

Learn how to adapt communication for cultural differences in your organisation

Get in touch