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How to effectively collaborate across cultures

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Culture is one of those topics that tends to come up a lot when it comes to organizational behavior.  Indeed, it’s something I’ve touched upon myself numerous times, with work from the likes of Geert Hofstede used as inspiration.

Most discussions around culture touch upon things such as collectivism vs individualism, and indeed, I’ve written about a few studies that have explored these differences, both in the rate of organizational change, and indeed in innovation itself.

A recent study from Columbia Business School academics has touched upon how to effectively collaborate across cultures.

Despite it being fundamental to success in our globalized workplaces, it’s a skill that is often lacking.

The authors suggest that a major reason for this could be our incomplete understanding of culture and human behavior in the first place.

They claim that current research tends to focus on the cultural origin of each person, which when coupled with the tendency to identify differences between cultures as promoting stereotypes that do little to help in a practical sense.

This perspective differs from polyculturalism, which suggests that we inherit cultural traditions from both our country but also from various other sources too.

In this perspective therefore, culture is viewed in terms of networks rather than categories.  So rather than looking at the differences between cultures, it looks at the interconnections between cultures.

“It’s time for a paradigm shift in our understanding of culture,” the authors say. “At a time when so many businesspeople live and work in multiple cultures, categorizing people based on their passport or birthplace just doesn’t ring true. Polyculturalism offers a better lens for understanding cultural complexity and how it affects collaboration, negotiation and leadership.”

So rather than an operating system that we’re all endowed with in childhood, it suggests instead a series of ‘apps’ that we acquire as we travel through life.  We pick up some things from our culture of origin, but also things from other cultures too.

Our ability to do this well then feeds into our ability to understand and communicate with other cultures, and of course collaborate with colleagues from around the world.

The authors believe that their research has identified the way we acquire cultural intelligence, and that this can in turn help organizations in both selecting and training candidates for culturally sensitive roles.

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