How Cross-Cultural Competence Impacts Workplace Culture

Written by Anandam Ravi

Does cross-cultural competence impact workplace culture? In short, absolutely.

Our relationships with others – our friends, family and community – make us human. Several decades ago, these relationships were relatively easy. For the most part, people lived all their lives in the same place, worked with, talked to and communicated with people who were similar to them. 

However, the world as we know it has changed. As our world becomes increasingly globalized, the people we interact with are more and more likely to be from different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences. 

What Is Culture? 

Culture is the set of learned patterns of perceptions, values and behaviors, shared by a group of people that are dynamic and diverse.

How Does Culture Impact the Workplace?

In extreme cases, it can cause unimaginable catastrophe. 

Take the case of Avianca Flight 052, a scheduled international flight from Bogota, Colombia, to John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport, New York. The Avianca Flight 052 crash landed primarily because of a communication failure between the Colombian pilots and the American Air Traffic Control (ATC) personnel. 

To understand the cause of the crash, it is essential to understand that broadly speaking, Colombians tend to follow an indirect communication style, toning down communication, while Americans tend to be more direct in their communication. With fuel reserves critically low, the pilots tried and failed to express the situation with the urgency and assertiveness that it needed. ATC put the Avianca pilots on hold for more than an hour, resulting in tragedy.

Culture Shock

Fortunately for most of us, the stakes of cross-cultural dealings are not usually as catastrophic. They are, however, serious. 

Consider the following statistics:

  •  40% of all overseas assignments fail, with the average cost of an expat assignment amounting to approximately $311,000 per year.
  • Only 38% of companies offer cross-cultural training to the assignees and family and 35% do not offer any cross-cultural training at all.

A landmark study by Cornell University showed that one of the most cited reasons for expatriate failure was culture shock. Culture shock occurs due to the inability to adapt to new and different cultures, a skill that is key to expatriate success. Professionals who do not possess or acquire these skills can often struggle in a new environment. 

Ayudha Puja

Gerd Höfner is a German managing director of the medical technology group Siemens Healthineers in Bangalore, India. Höfner and his family recall the many things that led to culture shocks, requiring training and conscious sensitization. 

In one example, Höfner remembers being expected to invite his employees’ families over and asking about their marital status and children. This is unthinkable in his native Germany. 

Then, there was the Ayudha Puja holiday, which is immensely popular in Bangalore. Each year during this holiday, priests bless work tools, be they excavators, cooking pots, or computers. 

On this day, work tools and productivity in general take the day off. And a company boss plays an important role in the sacred rituals and is expected to assist at the ceremony. 

Thanks to intercultural training in Germany, Höfner had already learned how important family life and religion were in India’s everyday working life. He had insisted on this training after Siemens previously sent him to Genoa without any preparation.

It was only with great difficulty that Höfnerwas able to eventually gain the trust of the workforce in Genoa and didn’t want that to happen again. “I wanted to do better in India,” says Höfner.

The Culture Iceberg

So why are cross-cultural relationships so difficult? One reason is the famous culture iceberg.If the culture of a society is considered an iceberg, then there are some aspects visible above the water, but there is a much larger portion hidden beneath the surface. 

The external, or conscious, part of culture is what we can see. This is the tip of the iceberg and includes behaviors and some beliefs. The internal, or subconscious, part of culture is below the surface of a society. This includes the values and thought patterns that underlie behavior. 

For instance, take the case of a person from India. Many people have heard of Indian cultural notions like Chicken Tikka, Indian saris and bindis, and Bollywood. However, for each commonly known entity there exists beneath the surface, several more hidden cultural nuances. For instance, how many people are aware that there is no such thing as “Indian food” and that each state has its own language, culture and identity?

The same goes for any culture. To truly understand a person from that culture, it is essential to plumb the depths of the iceberg.

How Culture Is Measured 

What can we do to tackle the problem of cultural stereotyping based on popular and often incomplete notions of a culture? One solution is to increase our awareness, both of our own culture as well as of others. Fortunately, there are several excellent models to choose from such as:

Essentially, these models distill our cultural differences on the basis of specific categories such as:

  • Hierarchy or deference to people in positions of greater authority
  • Individual versus collective thinking
  • Risk appetite or aversion
  • The need for a sense of achievement
  • Tolerance of ambiguity
  • Our attitude to living in the moment

Each country or culture can be ranked in a generic sense on these parameters that provide a starting point to understanding the difference between two or more cultures. 

Cross-Cultural Training

Cross-cultural training is that all-important step between the status quo and the plunge into a new culture. It’s a safe space where one can process new challenges in a low stakes environment. 

For example, a team member might find themselves siding with another automatically because they are able to relate to them more. This is a classic presentation of unconscious bias – a situation which can be remedied through repeated immersive application.

Traditional cross-cultural competence programs follow a structure similar to the one below:

  • Know yourself and your culture
  • Understand the theory 
  • Apply the theory

Most traditional training programs concentrate on the second component. However, understanding the theory and applying it to one’s own culture and specific situation is a little more challenging. 

Edstutia employs some of the most knowledgeable experts in the field of intercultural training, especially using VR, which has inherent benefits invaluable for topics such as Cross-Cultural Competence.

Enhance Your Training with VR

Cross-cultural training is one area where Virtual Reality can make a world of difference for various reasons:

Engagement and the feeling of ‘safety’

Zoom often creates a dilemma. You can switch on your camera to be more authentic and “in the moment.” You also risk being judged for your opinions and cultural views.

Alternatively, you can keep your camera off and retreat in the safety behind a more anonymous and disembodied voice at the cost of authenticity. 

VR solves that problem with its avatar-based model. Your team can now gather in the same shared space for a feeling of proximity and togetherness while still being able to maintain a distance from judgment. 

VR learners are often more forthcoming, open, and less inhibited compared to online learners. 

Physical presence

Virtual Reality gives a more natural sense of being physically together. In VR, we share the space, our cultural baggage safely tucked away in a metaphorical overhead compartment. This is difficult to simulate in a more stylized and two-dimensional environment like Zoom — even in breakout rooms.

In VR, groups can huddle in different physical spaces. Even inside of this space, each person has the ability to wander off and find a teammate from another group.This is a simple luxury of the real world that is missed in Zoom and other virtual conference platforms. 

Some activities can be particularly powerful and potent in Virtual Reality. Edstutia’s training course on Cross-Cultural Competence contains an activity using a set of “value cards.” Each card has a different social value written on it and learners must walk around the room trading values with each other. 

“There is something innately powerful in the physiological act of giving away a value that is important to you. It creates a visceral reaction and makes you stop and really think.”

— Divya Susan Varkey, Cross-Cultural Competence Trainer and Head of Corporate Relations, Edstutia
Adding gamification is easier and better in VR because of the built-in shared space

Gamification

Adding gamification, or a sense of play, is simply easier and better in VR because of the built-in shared space. As humans, group learning often looks like play or competition. 

In some ways, training in VR can actually be even better than in-person training. For one thing, VR is not bound by the laws of nature or physics. The only limit is your imagination. You could create a monster from your fears and destroy it, ride a unicorn, or do any number of things impossible in the real world. 

Immersion

How long does it take for people to accept a virtual space? According to Edstutia’s Renu Ramakrishnan, not long. 

“Another way that VR is powerful is in the use of 360 degree videos. In the blink of an eye, participants can be transported to a spice market in India or to a busy office in Manila. The response that this elicits is akin to being there in person, allowing for learning to happen both on a cognitive as well as emotional level in a safe and engaging environment.”

— Renu Ramakrishnan, Cross-Cultural Competence Trainer and Head of Partnerships & Engagement, Edstutia

A participant in one of Edstutia’s VR-enhanced Cross-Cultural Competence training modules – Ayushi Tandon – initially questioned the necessity and even wisdom of placing individuals into generic nation-specific buckets. 

During the training, Tandon got the opportunity to join participants from different parts of the world including the U.S., Germany, and India. 

She found that people from different countries did indeed behave and talk in surprisingly predictable ways. As Gerd Höfner had found, people from India seemed more comfortable speaking about their families and homes, whereas people from more individualistic cultures preferred to talk about the weather, hobbies and sports. 

“Having talked about and having experienced this very thing in our training in VR just the day before, it seemed like I was reliving some aspects again in the real world, and was consequently far more prepared and comfortable than I would have been otherwise.”

— Ayushi Tandon, Edstutia learner

In short, VR makes real cross-cultural situations come to life and provides the ability to:

  • Put yourself in another’s shoes through role plays
  • Understand a new environment through 360-degree videos
  • Adapt your style to suit the situation through role plays and decision trees
  • Maintain a middle ground while communicating through role plays 
  • Tell stories in a safe space with ‘anonymity’ using avatars

Conclusion

In today’s world, cross-cultural competence is no longer a nice-to-have but rather a critical skil. A VR-enhanced course on cross-cultural competence improves your team’s abilities to integrate, negotiate, and communicate with another culture. 

Edstutia’s VR-Enhanced Learning Modules use immersion and experiential learning techniques to help teams confidently implement and champion their new skills. Contact Edstutia today to learn how we can help you foster an empowering and inclusive workplace with VR training.