Team- and culture-building exercises are designed to improve productivity, increase employee motivation, encourage collaboration, and build trust among employees. These exercises are especially important for global teams where cultural gaps can cause lapses in communication and empathy.
Pooja Kothari is a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer and CEO of Boundless Awareness, providing customized, interactive group workshops to companies that are committed to anti-bias and anti-oppression work.
“Workplaces are made up of a diverse group of people from all sorts of backgrounds, learning styles, work styles, geographies, cultures, ethnicities, skin colors, disabilities, genders, and sexualities,” she says. “We don’t all think the same, we don’t have the same personal experience, or professional experiences. All of this diversity impacts the way we communicate with each other. We work together, collaborate, and have to understand each other to create a unifying product or service.”
Let’s take a look at why culture-building exercises are so important for cross-cultural teams, five example exercises, and ways global companies can navigate cultural gaps.
Why are culture-building exercises so important for cross-cultural teams?
In our increasingly remote work landscape, globally dispersed teams are very common. Career coach Alejandra Hernandez says culture-building exercises are important for these cross-cultural teams because they create unity among groups of people who otherwise perceive and navigate through the world in different ways. Exercises allow teams to synergize and thrive since their purpose is to create a sense of respect and community, often helping align a company’s words and actions regarding their culture.
After participating in culture-building activities, employees are better able to understand each other's strengths, weaknesses, interests, and styles of thinking and working. In diverse teams, it can help eliminate any preconceived notions employees may have about their colleagues.
Kothari says, “There is so much that can be lost in the smallest miscommunication. It is not enough to believe everyone has ‘good intent’ when our behavior impacts each other. To take an overly simplified example, to an extrovert, an introvert’s way of collaborating may be confounding. The extrovert may never have thought about what introverts go through to engage in an extrovert world.”
This is why culture-building exercises are so important for teams—they build understanding, cross-cultural competence, and push companies toward equity.
5 culture-building exercises for cross-cultural teams
1. ‘What I feel like saying is…’
In this exercise, Hernandez says that every team member gets to take a turn to speak about whatever they want before a meeting starts. Whoever is leading the meeting sets the ground rules—each person gets one minute, no one can interrupt, what they say can’t be used against them, etc. The exercise is designed to get everyone grounded in the meeting and let go of anything that’s going on throughout the day.
Hernandez says, “This [exercise] is effective because it builds trust, it lets people share information that otherwise would not have come up, and you get to know people deeper personally and professionally. As a cross-cultural team, it’s important to have spaces where people can share comfortably and safely and where it feels natural as opposed to forced.”
2. Show and tell
Show and tell isn’t only for kids, it’s a great way to build culture in organizations too. Set up a time when employees can share an item or an experience with others and what it means to them. This could be a piece of art, photo, video, medal, piece of clothing, book, piece of sports equipment, and so on. Leave time for a short Q&A session in the end. This is a great way to learn about one another’s cultures, treasures, and traditions outside of work.
“It’s important to have a facilitator for activities like this to work. A leader in the workplace that encourages others to share and feel safe doing so, someone that sets the meeting, shares the information with the rest of the teams to attend, and reminds people that this is about learning from one another as a cross-cultural team,” says Hernandez.
Kothari recently facilitated a culture-building exercise at a company retreat called Jigsaw. “We scrambled staff by power level and department so everyone was mixed together. They had to individually fill out a worksheet where they wrote down what they believed the other departments, outside of their own, did and what they accomplished for the overall success of the company.”
Then, each department met and decided on one thing that their department accomplishes that’s vital to company success that the other departments might not have been aware of. They shared this back with their mixed group and learned vital information about one another, highlighting their accomplishments and sharing a sense of appreciation with their peers.
Kothari says, “The participants loved the Jigsaw exercise because it uncovered a curiosity about colleagues they see everyday, made space for staff to receive their colleagues' admiration and appreciation, and boosted morale across all teams.”
Another effective culture-building exercise is “Fishbowl,” where one to three people from one department have the spotlight and discuss the pros and cons of how other departments interact with them. Kothari says this exercise is especially crucial for departments that are hierarchically lower.
“In a social justice, nonprofit organization where I led this exercise, the supervisors and management were able to clearly hear and validate how the social workers and paralegals were affected by their communication,” says Kothari. Because the majority of organizations are still very white (and male) at the top, exercises like these offer a space for team members from non-dominant groups to discuss any process or culture changes they’d like to see.
5. White supremacy characteristics discussion
White supremacy is very much so alive in the workplace and leads to discrimination and assimilation. Caroline Taiwo writes for Pollen, a creative agency for mission-driven organizations, “This means in white-led and white-dominant organizations, whiteness is the standard for office behavior, workplace values, and the criteria used to discern merit…The tone and manner of speech is in tension. Wearing locs, braids, or headwraps is in tension. Heating up food from non-Western countries is in tension. Even taking breaks throughout the day to pray, a protected right, is in tension.”
Kothari says, “For companies who are truly dedicated to DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] work and want to authentically deepen their understanding of white supremacy culture and how it manifests day-to-day in communication, we go through Tema Okun’s white supremacy checklist and discuss ways we perpetuate white supremacy culture in our workplace even when we consciously reject the same values.”
This provides an important channel for all employees, regardless of cultural background, to share and discuss their feelings about privilege and workplace norms. You can find the list of white supremacy characteristics here.
Plus, 4 tips for navigating cultural gaps in a global team
Hernandez says, “Be open and honest about seeing [cultural] gaps. Consider deeply who is being impacted by [gaps] and bring in outside experts and consultants that navigate cultural gaps, diversity, inclusion, etc.” When working in a cross-cultural team, keep these tips in mind for navigating cultural gaps during both culture-building exercises and everyday situations.
1. Never put pressure on a particular employee to educate others on their cultural experience.
Anyone who chooses to open up about their experiences should because they want to and feel safe to share parts of their cultural experiences, not because they’re thrust into the spotlight.
2. Connect often with your team.
Especially if you have a remote team, set up 1:1 time with employees and ask specific questions that could encourage them to speak on any of their concerns. “People oftentimes don’t feel comfortable sharing constructive criticism, especially to someone they report to. As leaders in a cross-cultural company, it is particularly important to get support where needed and to continuously work on creating safe spaces for people to share their observations,” says Hernandez.
3. Be mindful of employees who live outside of the area where your office is headquartered.
Global teams are often headquartered in a European or North American city, so the company is usually subsequently anchored to that country’s customs, holidays, language, and norms. Kothari says, “It’s important when staff are dispersed across the globe, that we are aware of who is centered in daily conversation and whose holidays are being respected if they live outside the HQ country.”
4. Have a facilitator on board who understands all of the cultures in the office.
“Space has to be created for everyone to be heard and to feel understood. Every country has their own history, their own stereotypes, their own understanding about other countries. A skilled facilitator will recognize these dynamics, point them out to the group, and create a space to openly and comfortably discuss the realities, similarities and differences among staff, and how to improve understanding between staff from various countries,” says Kothari.
About our sources
Alejandra Hernandez is a women’s career and leadership coach. She founded empowHER change to focus her efforts on what motivates her the most: helping women be confident and trailblaze their way into leadership. She offers 1:1 coaching and is launching a women’s leadership mastermind in May. Connect with her here.
Pooja Kothari is an expert facilitator, trainer, and consultant on equity and inclusion. After witnessing firsthand how deep racism, sexism, and homophobia are ingrained in the criminal justice system as a public defender, Kothari founded Boundless Awareness to address unconscious bias in workplace culture. At Boundless Awareness, she offers tailored workshops and exercises to explore the intersections of identity, language, and bias in a fun, non-judgmental way.