By Alka Chandiramani

Is understanding another person’s perspective essential for effective, cross-cultural communication? When a way of thinking about something is similar to ours, we feel rewarded, whereas the opposite may be true with people who have opposing viewpoints.

In a company context, there can be a risk of creating a toxic environment stemming from two overriding issues: the first is the sole use of technology to communicate, removing us from face-to-face interaction; the second is the assumption that others share the same values without taking into consideration perspectives from a different cultural mix.

Whether we identify with another person often starts with visual perception. The New Yorker article, On the Face of It, mentions that, at the time of his presidency, few people knew that America’s thirty-second President, Franklin Roosevelt, was paralyzed. Many knew that he had polio, but were not aware that he could not walk. He managed to hide the extent of his condition from the majority of the voting public with a simulated walking technique. Aside from this concealing his frailty and projecting him as strong and able-bodied leader in the eyes of the public, it portrayed a figurehead that people could relate to. Had he presented himself to the public in a wheelchair would that have had any effect? Perhaps, it would have, as public perception of the President would have been completely different.

Understanding perspective and the ability to connect with people and build successful teams in a cross-cultural environment helps leaders and organizations stand out amongst competitors. Many of us work in companies that operate globally and have to understand cross-cultural perspectives. Now, more than ever before, ‘relatedness’, or a feeling of connection, is an important component to building effective collaborations between team leaders from different cultures. A sense of relatedness essentially builds mutual trust between people. I work with a diverse group of individuals from across many cultures and building relatedness and a sense of belonging is crucial.

ScienceDaily reports that witnessing a person from our own group, who we can relate to, or an outsider, who we do not relate to, who suffers pain causes neural responses in two very different regions of the brain. The specific region activated reveals whether we will help the person in need. Research to investigate this, carried out at the University of Zurich on soccer fans, suggests we are more likely to help members of our own group.

The importance of creating a sense of relatedness when working in a multicultural environment is often underestimated. There is often more focus on creating tasks and objectives without much thought given to the relatedness within a team. These days we are confronted with cross-cultural differences in cases such as mergers or international expansion. The differences are there, the misunderstandings are there, but no real change in mentality takes place. Thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ will cause friction, resulting in a fragmented team and, thus, team members may hesitate in going that extra mile for each other. The impact that has on business success is clear. Companies gain a strong competitive edge by creating mutual trust and a sense of relatedness, despite the cultural differences. As a result, this element is a significant one in managing teams successfully in today’s global environment.