When Cultural Gaps Make Small Problems Big


When it comes to working on diverse teams, there are many potential cultural gaps. But the more cultural competence team members have, the better they can spot these gaps and bridge them before they turn into a larger problem.

Take this example of how cultural gaps nearly derailed an international company’s attempt just to schedule a meeting:

Joris was trying to schedule the annual winter sales meeting from his company’s HQ in Sweden. This year, he wanted to bring his overseas sales managers in for the meeting. Joris’ Tunisian colleagues wrote to him, saying that they would like to join, but that they were unsure they would be able to attend because of inclement weather conditions. Because there is a large branch of the company in Melbourne, Joris suggested moving the meeting to Australia, where it would be summer. Still, the Tunisian sales managers were hesitant about committing and mentioned that travel could be treacherous at any time.

Joris began to suspect that the Tunisian sales managers did not want to be bothered attending the meeting. Joris’ manager Suzanne suggested that there might be a religious reason that the Tunisians, who are Muslim, could not travel in the winter. It was then that Joris’ teammate Nadia, who had studied abroad in North Africa in college, opened his eyes to the cultural gaps at play in the situation.

She reminded Joris that most North African and Middle Eastern cultures have a constraint orientation. People in these cultures tend to believe they have limited control over circumstances that may affect their lives, including weather. This means they are less likely to make a long trip – or commit to other big projects – without ample planning and assurances. Nadia also mentioned the Tunisian high-context orientation, meaning that Joris should “read between the lines” and see if the Tunisians were giving him any indirect messages about why they were reluctant to go.

Joris decided to reach out to the Tunisian sales managers by phone instead of email, which would facilitate a deeper and lengthier conversation. Over the phone he assured them that the meeting would be accessible regardless of any weather conditions and that because it would last three days, there was room for any delays caused by outside factors. The Tunisians also admitted that they had visa concerns, as they had been denied visas for travel in the past due to their nationality. Joris agreed to have the company’s HR team help secure the Tunisian sales managers’ visas well ahead of the trip.

Being able to spot cultural gaps, and thus being able to bridge them, facilitates communication and collaboration on diverse and disperse teams. Thanks to Nadia’s advice, Joris realized that a deeper conversation with his seemingly reluctant Tunisian colleagues was necessary, and he was able to come up with a solution that benefitted all parties, so that their meeting could finally take place.