Intercultural Skills For Multicultural Teamwork In Singapore

An Expert's View about Cross-Cultural Communications in Singapore

Posted on: 17 Apr 2012

Balancing work tasks and work relationships is one of the most important areas to focus on when working together in multicultural teams. It’s a simple enough concept to grasp but the execution can be tough, even for experienced managers.

I recently facilitated a cross cultural coaching session in Singapore for team members of a global oil and gas company. This diverse group of American, British, Chinese, Dutch, Indonesian, Singaporean and Thai were working together for the first time on a new project.

They identified their greatest challenges working across cultures and also the top multicultural skills a person should have to work in their company’s global environment.

When I asked them, “What are some practical workplace examples of your greatest challenges working with team colleagues from other countries?”

The group responded:

“Meeting deadlines while dealing with people from different cultures and levels of experience can be a challenge. This has become part of daily life at our company over the past decade as we have grown globally.”

“Differences in communication styles is a common barrier when dealing with our counterparts, especially when we need to negotiate. Some cultures can be very direct and straight forward, and others can be very emotional and highly sensitive.”

“I find that if a team member in another country is asked for information and they are unsure how to handle it they do not respond at all rather than at least acknowledge the request.”

“I organise a meeting for 4pm. Team members in another country will dial-in 15 minutes late. We have a priority issue that we need to have addressed immediately and the team members handling the issue don’t correct the problem which leads to more missed deadlines.”

“Communication is an issue and you find yourself having to repeat things and email things multiple times before it is truly understood.”

I then asked “So what do you think are the top multicultural skills a person should have to work in your company’s global environment?”

They responded:

“Be flexible and able to adapt easily to the changes within the company culture.”

“Have good people skills such as courtesy, respect, active listening, adaptability and tolerance.”

“Be open minded and don’t have a superiority complex.  Having an ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ mentality won’t work.”

“Have the skills to communicate effectively with other cultures.  It is important to have the ability to challenge something if you do not believe it is correct, professional, or ethical.”

“Be able to understand the diverse cultures we work with. But all regions should understand the main business priorities such as timeliness and execution.”

“You must be able to acknowledge that not everyone has the same cultural background as yourself or your country. Being aware of this and respectful of this is essential. Some of this is common sense when dealing with other people whether it’s due to age, race, sex, culture or football team you support. It’s all about respect.”

During lunch, some of the Western and Asian colleagues asked me, “How can we motivate some of our colleagues if they are less ambitious?”

“Why do you say they are less ambitious?” I asked.

“You can see from our challenges that some colleagues are frustrated with their team members. The lack of assertiveness and accountability causes a lot of problems working on a project this size.” said Frank from the USA.

“What do you think you should do?” I asked them.

“We still need some training to help others adapt to these differences and modify their work style for best results,” said Chanarong from Thailand.

“The comments made by some of your team members contrast with the overall group’s strong core value of success and competition. When we spoke about team success today we were looking at the inter-relationships with your team members and that comes down to the individual level. When we spoke about each culture’s preferred workplace values and behavior it’s just a guideline for you.

It may not be easy for some of your Asian colleagues to live up to your expectations to be proactive, assertive and accountable.  As you can see, this frustrates Khun Chanarong who is Asian.” I added.

“That’s right. From time to time I am also frustrated with my Asian colleagues.” said Chanarong.

“Frank, this is a new project with new teams for everyone here. Pushing for quick results in the beginning can be a big mistake.  Sometimes the more you push the more resistance you get. Your very task focused approach to business worked great for you back home in the USA.  But that approach in Asia will only keep you stuck, frustrated and unable to tap into your own common sense.  And most importantly, unable to reach your teams’ potential in Asia.” I said

“What do you suggest?” Frank asked.

“I think you should ask Khun Chanarong his thoughts and advice.” I responded.

Chanarong said, “I think you need to win over the team members Frank.”

“What do you mean? How do I do that?” Frank asked.

“Start by telling them more about your personal life. Your Asian colleagues might also expect that since our company flew you halfway around the world you have some expertise to share with them.” Chanarong said.

“I can do that.” Frank responded.

“But keep in mind that your Asian colleagues also had some important comments to share.  One comment was ‘Be open minded and don’t have a superiority complex’. So be sure to share your experience and expertise in a humble way.  The more humble you are the more respect and trust you will gain.” I said.

“I didn’t think to mention that to Frank. I guess that is naturally the way I would do it being Thai.” said Chanarong with a smile.

“Timely responses, speaking up and a greater sense of accountability will come more easily once your Asian team members know, like and trust you.” I said.


About Brian McDermott, GTP Senior Consultant

With over 20 years of international business experience, Brian has delivered a variety of global leadership, intercultural and teamwork programs for both senior and first line manager levels. During his career he has worked with Fortune 1000 companies in North America, Europe, South America, and Asia: Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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Posted: 17 April 2012

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