Cross cultural awareness and skills in the workplace are vital to companies striving to enter new geographical areas or aiming to build successful operations at international locations. Ineffective cross-cultural collaboration and communication in international teams have caused many global projects to under-perform and fail to reach desired outcomes. Luckily there are quite a number of tools and team interventions available by now to improve results in these areas. Today I am sharing an exercise with materials, which you can use to conduct a cross-cultural exercise with teams or groups of people.
This particular team exercise was developed in such a way that it could be used in many different ways and configurations. For example: you can use a simplified version of this as an ice-breaker during a team-building program or you can use it as a 2 hour-exercise in a full day training program on related topics.
In essence the objectives of using this exercise with teams or groups of people are:
- To increase cross cultural understanding and awareness by providing experiences and discussions for team exercise participants
- To prepare someone to enter or engage with another culture – such as those who will start to work with another culture, whereas the person/team previously worked mainly with homogeneous teams (you could make up a small group of people who are selected to receive cross cultural awareness training).
- To help multi-cultural teams pay more attention to cultural differences which could make it hard to communicate and collaborate effectively.
- To help team members understand where and how cross cultural communications could possibly end up with unintended outcomes.
Once you have reviewed how the exercise works, I am sure you will be able to come up with additional ways to use it with the teams/groups that you work with.
The exercise can be run with groups as small as 12 and you can also do this with groups of 30 people – should you have enough additional facilitators to support the coordination, support and debriefing portions of the exercise.
How it works
Click on the video below to see a short video on how this exercise works
The materials needed include:
- Culture-preparation sheets for different cultures – named after random colors (see below). These sheets are used by “foreigners” to this culture to prepare for interaction. This mimics information that one can typically find online or in books about another culture and which can be studied to prepare oneself before engaging with another culture for the first time.
The way the cultures look or seem to outsiders
Own culture descriptions for each group
- Only people who have been chosen to be a part of this group will see these more comprehensive information sheets and only the sheet that pertains to the group that they are a part of. (Not to members of the team they are about to meet with)
- More comprehensive cultural sheets to help group members of a particular culture (as set up in this exercise) to understand their own culture. This means they are better able to act according to their own culture when they encounter another culture in this exercise. This material goes a bit deeper than surface-level behaviors to explain to some degree WHY this culture would do certain things and how their past beliefs and experiences have shaped them into the culture they present today.
- Assignment to indicate to each cultural group what they are hoping to accomplish in the upcoming interaction/negotiation meeting with some members of another culture.
How to set this up:
Size and dividing into sub-groups
With groups of less than 20 people I tend to just pick two cultures and not all 4. You may of course go with more than cultures – just remember to add more time to debriefing and discussion sessions after the exercise. Make sure that each cultural group has at least 6 members so that it is easy to divide into 2 cultural delegations of no less than 3 members. For example: If you have a group of 20. Split them into two cultural groups of 10 members each.
Make sure each cultural group can meet uninterrupted in a dedicated space to discuss and prepare for their assignments. When the sub-groups meet there should be enough space for them to be able to talk and see each other while doing so.
Planning the session
Imagine you pick the Red and the Blue cultures only for your exercise. And imagine you have 20 people at your event so 10 of them will be from the Red culture and 10 would be from the Blue culture. Out of the 10 members of the Red culture, 5 will (after preparation) meet with 5 members (which is half of the members of the Blue culture) to work on their assignment. And the other 5 members of the Red culture will meet with the remaining 5 members of the Blue culture. So this means: you will have two intercultural meetings taking place between Red and Blue delegations with two different assignments.
The Color name called out in the assignment information above refer to the traveling delegation. So in the case of Red and Blue – the delegation from the Red Culture traveling to meet at the Blue culture location will work on the assignment called “Red” and the delegation from the Blue culture that will travel to meet with the Red culture will prepare for the “Blue” assignment. Those remaining at the location to host the traveling delegation will prepare for the discussion that the other cultural team will want to have. (see graphic below for further illustration).
Before starting the exercise I typically share some slides and have an overview discussion on the topic of how cultural differences can be viewed. There are quite a few models and slides posted online to help you with this part. (see two links below)
Cultural Differences links:
Use a basic framework of looking at cultures to set up the exercise portion, which comes next.
Share with the group: We will divide you into different cultures and we will provide materials to help you understand your own culture as well as other cultures that you may need to interact with. Each culture will gather in a different place to prepare for the assignments. When the preparation is done, each cultural group will divide into two parties. One party will “travel to” meet with a delegation from the other culture at their location while a delegation from their culture will “travel to” meet with the remainder of your cultural group at your own location. You will decide in your group who will go to the other location and who will host the visiting delegation at your own location.
Steps for the exercise
- Divide the large group into an equal number of smaller cultural groups. (choose to work with two cultures or four cultures in each case pairing two specific cultures) Each culture group should have at least 6 members as they will need to select two small delegations to meet with one other culture. A delegation should have no less than 3 members.
- Having separated the different cultural groups (from the exercise) into different areas/corners in the large room or into separate breakout rooms, you hand out the comprehensive cultural sheets to each individual in a particular culture. Do not share this with other cultures. Only members of the group that represent for example the “Red” culture get to read the comprehensive sheet for the Red culture. Allow about 5 minutes for them to read through it.
- Now hand out the Culture sheet showing all of the cultures in summary form. Each member of each cultural group gets this handout. At the same time you verbally share with each culture what their assignments are in meeting with a delegation from the other culture. (see assignments above). They know which culture will interact with them. Give each cultural group about 15 minutes to study their assignments and what is shown on the Culture preparation sheets for all cultures vs their own culture in order to prepare how to approach interactions with them.
- Half of the first cultural group will “travel” to have a meeting with half of the second culture. Half of the second cultural group will travel to meet with the remainder of the first culture to engage in the assignment. Allow 15 minutes for delegations to engage and execute their assignments with the other culture.
- After 15 minutes ask everyone to come back to the large meeting room for a discussion and debriefing session on the exercise.
- Cultural group members sit together (both delegations) and discuss the following questions before reporting to the big group:
- In what ways did we encounter unexpected behaviors?
- How did their way of interacting make it harder for us to succeed?
- What would we do differently on this same assignment now that we have experienced the two interactions with the other culture?
- Each of the culture groups reports back on those questions to the larger group.
- In large group debrief further on learnings from the exercise and how team members may approach some team aspects differently when they are interacting with someone from a different culture then their own? Do they have tips and advice for others who have to regularly communicate or collaborate with those from other cultures?
- Bonus debrief points – if you have the time. How did the way women were perceived make a difference in the exercise? Do you think that it mattered whether the delegates were from a different generation? How would you advise others on how to take additional aspects into consideration when it comes to cross cultural communication and collaboration?
- Consider an add-on exercise where each participant is asked to jot down the areas where he/she may have had the most difficulty, questions or had the most insights during this exercise. Is there an area that he/she would like to explore further to improve own understanding or skills? This should be captured in the Personal Development Plan of each participant.
- Do remember to mention stereotyping and how that can cause hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Avoid doing this trap while facilitating the exercise.
- Be aware of showing any “funny” videos or clips that depict how cultures misunderstand each other. They are often based on stereotypes and can easily cause upsets. Humor is not universally interpreted in the same way by those from different cultures.
- Define that in this case (Exercise) culture refers to national cultures, but clarify that there are several subcultures, which can also make collaboration and communication tough. i.e. operations and sales.
- I recommend that you share the iceberg model, which helps teams appreciate the vast amount of cultural data which is not visible, but which can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations with others.
Workshare – means that more than one office is working on the project. There is typically one office which is in the lead while other offices collaborate on the project. They all have to follow the same project protocols in order to avoid confusion and differences in end results produced.