More than a ‘nice’ skill to have

Intercultural competence is more than a ‘nice’ skill to have.


Soft skills such as team working are the new ‘hard skills’. It is a fact. They are harder to pin down, intangible, and unlike many skills virtually unteachable. So what’s the point of intercultural training if you can’t acquire a soft skill? Here’s the answer: it’s because culture isn’t soft. And the British working in multinational teams simply must communicate more efficiently with people from other countries not only when working beyond the UK borders.

Employers recognise the importance of foreign languages (a hard skill), but intercultural competence has been a very neglected area for a long time. Often, intercultural training is confused with diversity and equality training. Employers aren’t likely to admit that they are facing communication challenges within teams so instead of offering a comprehensive cultural training for their teams they prefer to focus on leadership and management training. But as you start to analyse the problem in more depth, you will discover that the underlying management problems happen due to the lack of understanding across the team.

Nowadays, we don’t only communicate and interact with people from other countries when working internationally. Multicultural teams have become the norm in the UK and many other European countries, such as Germany or France. Being able to work efficiently in such teams requires far more preparation than speaking the same language so enhanced communication is the key element of teamwork. Challenges of the day-to-day communication within the team will affect the overall efficiency and productivity.

For example, the way a British person would ask a German person to complete a task might be not sufficiently direct to convey the urgency of the task:

I would appreciate if  you could do it soon? might not be understood as I need it to be done as soon as possible. Similarly, I often get asked: Is it OK to knock at my British colleagues door or should I email her? or How do I know if the informal comments from my supervisor are negative or positive?

Foreign workers in the UK may appreciate the importance of intercultural training more than their British counterparts. Things are done differently in a British office and they simply have to  adjust. If they have to figure it out for themselves without upsetting others, it will take time (and probably frustration). Better to offer intercultural training as a hard skill.

So when they attend such training, foreign workers usually bring in very specific questions they want the trainer to address. Sometimes it is a matter of making them aware of potential pitfalls and at others to help them change their own behaviour. It comes down to the difference between perceiving that a British person is irritated in the first place and the appropriate actions to resolve the actual upset.

On the other hand, when British people attend such training, they are very often surprised (if not shocked) by the dilemmas their international counterparts report when working in the UK. They learn about how ambiguous English phrases can sound to a direct speaker e.g. Swiss or Czech. There are practical strategies to help them communicate more directly with their colleagues even when it feels uncomfortable. Such training helps both foreign workers who have to understand the British work environment, but also the British who have to realise how they are perceived by other cultures.

This concept has been successfully implemented in the Language Unit of the U of C Engineering Department. The intercultural awareness modules ‘Global Engineer’ have become very popular with the students due to the fact that all concerned recognise the importance of efficient teamwork as the qualities needed in their future careers – the combined skillset of hard and soft skills that will be needed in the future.

So, if intercultural competence (intelligence, literacy) is such an important skill to have, why isn’t it an integral part of mainstream education in the UK? I believe it should be, especially in post-referendum Britain, where changing attitudes towards foreign workers have been observed. This has inevitably had, and will have, a damaging effect on communities in the long run.

Now, look around your work environment! Consider if you need intercultural competence training to give you and your colleagues the skills to make things work more smoothly in future.

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