Springboards Blog

Inclusion Is the Key to Cross-Cultural Collaboration

Sep 17, 2019 2:58:47 PM / by Nadia Nassif

The future of work is collaborative. With increasingly multicultural workforces, how do organizations overcome cross-cultural challenges to collaboration?

 “I am slowly learning the business culture here. People think I am shy or not very friendly, because I am not always sure what they are saying. I understand the words, but I don’t always “get it.” I don’t understand the jokes and the short-hand words they use.”

—Foreign national employee at global consulting firm and Springboards coaching client

Cultural Groups and the Collaboration Mandate

In coaching professionals from diverse cultural backgrounds over the last decade, I’ve heard many variations on the above. And while training can clearly enhance multicultural employees’ communications skills, it doesn’t always address this feeling of being left out. On an individual level, the impact can be terribly isolating: “People from underrepresented groups (still) need a way of finding people like them to avoid feeling isolated and to boost engagement.” On a company level, lack of inclusion can have a negative effect on overall organizational health, by reducing productivity and cross-collaboration.

 We all know by now that the future of work is collaborative. Competitive advantage depends on how well you can collaborate to gain business value faster for the client. A recent study by Salesforce found that “86 percent of employees and executives cite lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures—meaning collaboration, and communication, are the real keys to succeeding at work.” Great! But where does this leave multicultural employees who do not feel included and who experience barriers to cross-cultural collaboration?

An Inclusive Culture Drives Workplace Collaboration

In recognizing the importance of diversity and inclusion, many organizations have promoted employee resource groups (ERGs). Almost 78 percent of 18-24 year-olds and nearly 84 percent of 25-34 year-olds report that ERGs have a positive impact on engagement. But engagement doesn’t guarantee inclusion, which, even in companies with ERGs, is more and more a challenge for multicultural employees (what identity group do they/should they belong to, if any?) And some firms, like Deloitte, have found that millennials resist being defined by the categories around which most ERGs are organized, and have phased them out.

 I’ve heard many coaching clients over the years lament that they are singled out, or feel they must meet the standards of the “majority” culture—often the expectations of one manager or of teammates—to ‘get to the next level’. As one multicultural coaching client recently said: “I wonder if my colleagues think I cannot “pull my weight” on team work, since it takes me much longer to write and edit the reports.”

Surfacing Unconscious Bias

Too many organizations may be missing opportunities to surface these issues and ensure that their multicultural members feel included. A coaching client at a professional services firm put it well: “Thanks to folks like you, we are starting to actually address these issues. Business schools have been talking for quite some time about the value of understanding cultural differences and norms, and their linkage to behavior. But I think few organizations have actually internalized it, and even fewer have addressed unconscious biases to really leverage better organizational performance.”

Collaboration Is, Well, A Collaborative Effort!

Instilling – and maintaining a collaborative culture that successfully includes multicultural employees means getting everybody, at every level, involved.

Multicultural employees:

·       Speak up and make your ideas, concerns, and potential solutions known.

·       Identify a mentor or two who you can confide in; seek other multicultural employees to share experiences and tips.

·       Consider asking your HR/L&D colleagues about the possibility of getting some coaching from an internal or external resource who can help you address communications and cultural fit concerns.

Senior business leaders and managers:

·       All organizations need leaders who are both emotionally and culturally intelligent, and their D&I solutions need to mirror that. “If the team leader clearly understands how people from varied backgrounds behave, he or she can turn differences into the team’s greatest assets.” But not all managers can identify hidden biases or are comfortable or confident in addressing multicultural employees’ issues (for more on this, see my recent CLO feature, “How Coaching Can Help the Majority Culture Understand Difference”).

·       Inclusive behaviors modeled by the C-suite go a long way toward signaling a culture committed from the top down to supporting multicultural employees, whether it’s across a local office or a global enterprise.

·       It’s also important for leaders to communicate the vital two-way connection between inclusion and collaboration, and to present the business mandate of collaboration to the entire workforce: it’s not just a commendable philosophy, but a pragmatic necessity.

L&D, HR and D&I teams:

·       As part of your outreach to multicultural employees, identify those who can act as ambassadors—in recruitment and cultivation efforts as well as in helping multicultural colleagues fit in and ensure they can connect with others facing similar extra-cultural challenges.

·       Make coaching a community practice that lowers the barriers for multicultural employees, supported where possible by professional coaching resources and more informally and in the moment by managers and mentors. Coaching can play a unique role, in helping both multicultural employees and their managers to address cultural literacy challenges through specific behavioral adjustments—which should be grounded in shared business goals.

·       In diversity training programs, reinforce management’s focus on applied inclusiveness as the foundation of collaboration.

·       In your planning and budgeting, commit to investing over the long term in ways to improve inclusiveness and collaboration. It can’t happen overnight. Case in point: one global client of Springboards implemented coaching as part of a major D&I program. They experienced strong initial results at the individual level but were not able to translate that into long-term systemic change, since the initiative was not continued and coaching was not highly valued or appreciated by management. For D&I initiatives to have “stickiness” over the long term, consistency is key.

End Goal: A Collaborative Workforce

Inclusiveness and collaboration are so much more than “nice-to-have” ideals. Research shows that in a productive, thriving organization, they operate dynamically, mutually reinforcing one another—and focusing on one without the other will make it more challenging for any organization with a diverse workforce to achieve its business goals.


Springboards helps leading organizations to implement and sustain successful multicultural learning and D&I initiatives, including coaching and training.

Tags: unconscious bias, diversity training, workplace, cultural bias, diversity and inclusion

Nadia Nassif

Written by Nadia Nassif

Sign up for our News and Articles