4 Cross-Cultural Communication Mistakes to Avoid

We are increasingly working in a globalised world with colleagues, clients and suppliers from different countries. According to research from the law firm Baker McKenzie, Chinese companies invested 3.84 billion pounds in the UK in 2018. Furthermore, British companies are increasingly competing with global companies for contracts and employees are working as part of global teams with numerous different nationalities.

Chinese market

Avoid making damaging communication mistakesThis article will explore five cross-cultural mistakes to avoid when working with people from other cultures:

1) Not understanding different communication styles

In different countries people communicate in different ways. For example generally German and Dutch people are very direct in their communication style – what they say is what they mean. On the other hand, Japanese people often communicate in an indirect manner. This means that you will frequently have to read between the lines if you want to understand their meaning.

Furthermore, in some countries simple words such as “yes” can have different meanings. In most western countries when people reply “yes” it usually means they understand what was said and agree to do something. On the other hand, in several Asian cultures when someone uses the word “yes” it simply confirms that someone is listening to you. Someone might say “yes” and then later on say “no”, or you might find out that they didn’t understand what you said.

In this case it is important to double check if the other person understands your point by looking at their facial expressions, asking them to summarise what you said or sending them a summary of what was agreed in writing.

2) Comparing other cultures to your own

Some expatriates working overseas sometimes struggle to get used to different cultural habits. For example, this could be French people kissing on the cheeks in greeting or Japanese bowing. If you keep comparing a different culture with your own in a negative way you might offend people from that culture, and it could lead to conflict. This can affect your ability to build strong relationships.

3) Being negative or critical

 Some people complain a lot about working with clients or colleagues from other cultures. If you are negative about other nationalities or cultures and criticise the way they behave, this will have a very negative impact on your ability to work together.

4) Not adapting to the other culture

 Some expatriates work in other countries but do not adapt at all to the local culture. They live in a compound with other expatriates, they don’t eat the local food and they don’t mix with the local people. These same people often do not adapt their style of communication and way of conducting business, then are surprised when they struggle to be successful.

When working with clients or colleagues from another culture it is important to read up on the cultural differences and common cross-cultural misunderstandings. This could be something as simple as giving and receiving a business card with two hands in China.

Cross-cultural differences are important to consider when working with clients and colleagues from other countries to ensure your staff work efficiently and productively. If you would like to improve the ability of your staff to work more effectively with clients or colleagues from other cultures, read about our Cross-Cultural Communication Training.

5 Key Stages to a High Performing Team

Conflict or communication – which works best for you?

Three types of Team Conflict:

When the stakes are high, which one of these scenarios have you seen play out?

(A)   The conflict is swept under the carpet.

Denial that conflict existed, or had any impact on the team or performance

(B)   When aggression threatens to take over…

Sometimes assertiveness is the only way to get things done


(C)   Intermittent disagreement which wears the team down.

Chinese whispers which threaten the integrity of the team

Conflict is healthy

functioning team. Without it, and the communication skills that surround it your team is destined to be dysfunctional.

Learning how to handle the conflict that arises in your team and learning how to channel it effectively is key. Converting conflict into effective communication so that things can move forward and change is the name of the game. However, this is easier said than done.


The Tuckman model of team development can really help you with a new way of looking at the steps in the process.

To recap, the five steps of team development are:

  • Forming
  • Storming
  • Norming
  • Performing
  • Adjourning

The step most team leaders usually fear is the storming stage. This is when the arguments and disagreements happen about how things should be done and who should be doing them. As the team leader, you worry about everything falling out of control.

If you think about watching “The Apprentice” on TV, it’s the bit when the two teams are past the smiles (forming) and trying to work out how to work together.

What can you as the team leader do with the fear? As often is the case, communication is the answer. Here are three things you can do:

(A)   Take a deep breath and hold the space for the storming conversations to be held

It is tough, allowing a difficult conversation with diverse agendas and viewpoints to be heard in full. However, if you can keep your nerve, this is usually just before the conversation and team turns the corner.

(B)   Get better with your own capacity to hold demanding conversations

It’s a myth to think that some people are natural or just plain better at doing these things. We can all learn how to do new things with our communication. Keep experimenting with small differences with what you say and do.



(C)   Keep remembering, this is the team formation process, it’s not personal and it is possible!

A model such as Tuckman can quickly help you make sense of what is going on. With this model in your mind, you can ensure the stages happen overtly and cleanly. Knowledge is power!

5 steps towards healthy performance


It is hard to find a team leader or manager who looks forward to the storming stage of team development. However, Tuckman’s model and good communication skills can help you work with your team to both develop the team and keep performance high. Both of these are valuable to the long term future of your organisation.

For more ideas, a recent article in Forbes on how to resolve workplace conflicts might help.