Cultural Barriers

August 4, 2009 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

When I travel, whether it is overseas or to a part of the city I am not familiar with, I come away with the impression that we are all closer than we originally think. The same is true as I work with organizations that have grown to the size where they are split into separate teams: we are closer than we think.

We each spend our time in our own little worlds, necessarily incomplete. All the nuances of every culture, every language would easily overwhelm us, so we tend to focus on our own, and make do with a simplified perspective of all the others. This mechanism generally serves us well, and as we spend the vast amount of our time in that world we live in, everything is fine.

There are always times, however, when we move to the surface and interact with those other worlds, and all we have at our disposal is those simplified perspectives. These perspectives, at the time when they are needed for us to interact, expose themselves for what they really are: stereotypes.

We all have stereotypes of foreign cultures that we know little about, these stereotypes often formed by simple word-of-mouth, or by caricatures we are exposed to by the media. Intentionally or not, they are overemphasized perspectives that allow us to easily label distinct groups and form an impression of how we should deal with them. There are the inscrutable Asians, loudmouth Americans, the meek and overly-apologetic Canadians. I’m sure you can add a couple from your repertoire here as well.

Teams within larger organizations tend to build up a similar set of stereotypes for the groups they interact with infrequently. Those arrogant developers, those pesky testers, those naive managers. Unfortunately, almost all of the traits we build up of other groups are largely negative traits, primarily because those traits, as caricatures, are larger-than-life and over the top. Too much of anything is not a good thing, and if we tone down any of these traits, they would turn into positive ones.

I have found, both in my travels and in working with teams, that as soon as we come together and get to know another group or culture, these stereotypes quickly dissolve away, to be replaced with an appreciation that we actually are far more similar than we assumed we were. This doesn’t happen with brief brushes with one another, like taking a problem report from a tester or buying a baguette from a shopkeeper in a foreign land.

This transformation happens when we connect as people, when we interact beyond a simple transactional model. When we get a chance to understand one another, particularly if we can discuss our shared experiences or work together to solve a challenging problem (whether that is correcting a nasty defect or struggling through cultural or language barriers to achieve a common understanding), we build bonds that are far stronger than any pre-conceived notions that might have existed.

Wherever there is segmentation, wherever there are boundaries, there will be challenges. If we can consciously work to remove those boundaries, to better understand all the stakeholders in our projects at a deeper level, we improve our chances of success immensely. – JB

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