Fostering Collaboration Across Cultures

Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.

Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.

Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.

Illustration: Design vs Development

As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.

A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:

  • untidy
  • unencumbered by deadlines
  • value form over function
  • generally “right-brained”

A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:

  • fastidious
  • unencumbered by manners
  • value function over form
  • generally “left-brained”

Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.

These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.

The Negotiation of Meaning

Negotiation of Meaning refers to a natural part of communication where people make sure they understand each other. In the workplace, that can look like sharing information about a new project and asking questions until you reach a consensus.

When jargon (or cultural norms, or inside humor) is overused during this process, it highlights the differences between represented groups. Sometimes we do this to assert ourselves over the other group, sometimes to draw together the people we feel most comfortable with. Sometimes it’s because there’s simply no other way to explain a concept. Regardless of why it happens, the end perception of hostility is the same.

Even if everyone is speaking the same language (Japanese, Farsi, English, etc), the cultural communication patterns can serve as a language barrier when striving to work cross-culturally.

Us versus Them

Since both groups are speaking different “languages”, it sets up a collective pattern of mistrust and intimidation. It erodes the opportunities for respect and clarity which can lead both groups to defensive condescension — “I don’t know what you do, but without my work you couldn’t do it” and “You don’t understand what we do, so you can’t be aware of the value.”

Different sets of priorities (and understanding of the goals), impractical wants and needs, and a general desire to be The Best start to cloud the entire conversation. And without any of that mutual understanding and respect, it’s really painful to get back to a point where everyone is ready to collaborate effectively.

Back to the Start

You might be asking yourself what can be done to make this process better; how to help with cross-cultural collaboration proactively. Fortunately, I have a “Josepha’s Five and Five for Fostering a Collaborative Culture”: one list for team leaders and one for team members.

Dear Team Leaders

  • Team Tension (My One Subversive Comment): There should be some tension. Same thing I say about women in tech; we’re not all the same. If we were, then we wouldn’t need to collaborate ever, ever, ever. Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.
  • Respect and Accountability: Be aware of stereotypes and be empathetic. Everyone has their own expertise and there is inherent value in those perspectives. You set the pattern for how everyone is treated; respect who they are and hold yourself accountable when you take a misstep.
  • Set a Star, Chart the Course: I talk about this a lot, because it’s important. Make sure everyone knows what the final goal is, so everyone can row in the same direction. Adhere to “not about us without us” as much as possible, and make sure both sides are talking to each other.
  • Jargon Free’s the Way to Be: Only use jargon when absolutely necessary. When you have to use it, define it.
  • Proximity Aids Familiarity: All of this takes practice. If you have team members not getting along, assign them to a single project so they can practice.

Dear Team Members

  • Clear and Kind: It can be intimidating to work with someone that doesn’t have anything in common with you. Encouraging that fear/anxiety only makes it worse. Be kind and be prepared to listen.
  • Constructive Feedback: No matter our position on a team, sometimes we don’t get our way. Sharing concerns effectively can increase the odds of being heard. “Your timeline is terrible” isn’t as easy to hear as “It takes 53 days to build one of these. We won’t be able to build 20 in 60 days.”
  • Trust the Expertise of Others: It’s hard to hear that you’re wrong. But one of the characteristics of every great leader (again, no matter your position on a team) is the ability to seek out and hear other perspectives. Especially when we work across any number of different cultures (work skills, religions, sexual preferences, location, ability), being willing to be wrong can lead to the best outcomes.
  • Monitor and Adjust: Listen when people tell you something is wrong. In general, I believe that people want the best solution to a problem. No one is fighting for the worst solution. So when someone values you enough to note an issue, do your best to find the truth in that. Do what you can to make equitable adjustments.
  • Be Flexible, Fair, and Forgiving: This is for everyone, really. As we learn more about the people we are collaborating with, we’ll find that we crossed boundaries, we hurt feelings, and we were misinformed. Give yourself and others the benefit of the doubt.

This post is based on a talk I gave many years ago at an IT Symposium. It was titled “The Intersection of Marketing and IT: Fostering Collaboration and Avoiding Conflict”. The most recent version of it was given at All Things Open, 2019.


  1. Francesco Marini · March 27, 2020

    Insightful and amazingly written.

    Being, at the moment, a developer with a keen interest in design and coming from a kind of eclectic career path, I’ve been lucky to witness all kinds of interaction problems between different cultures and teams. But I would argue that even in the same team it’s not at all rare to face the same interaction problems, most of the time stemming from both a lack of proper leadership, and from inherent differences in attitude and willingness toward working together by the different members of the team.

    Anyway, I hope you don’t mind me sharing your article on LinkedIn!

    • Josepha · March 27, 2020

      I think you’re absolutely right that problems can appear within teams. I too think that excellent leadership can help (or solve) most problems with team dynamics. One of the interesting challenges we face with in the WordPress open source project is identifying the difference in work-from-home cultures and work-in-office cultures and helping people to negotiate their interactions with that concept in mind!

      • Francesco · March 30, 2020

        I think that’s probably one of the most common challenges for any company that has both in-office and remote employees. For one, there is a tendency for the ones working at the office (and, sadly, some, if not most, management people) to think that the ones working from home are just slacking (although there are plenty of studies demonstrating that for remote employees the contrary is frequently true). And then there are the challenges associated for example with meetings where there are some people sitting at the same table, in the same room, and a number connecting remotely. Some companies solved it by having everyone connecting to the meeting via video, for example.
        Let’s say that probably, full remote companies have it easier, because everyone is on the same boat, treated the same, and facing the same problems.

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