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International HR: How to Foster Empathy Across Global Businesses

CultureGlobal Business Strategy
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Local workplace culture is a hot topic in the HR world, but what about global workplace culture? Diversity within companies will likely increase as more businesses expand internationally.

A Harvard Business Review study found that an important difference between successful and unsuccessful global teams is the degree of emotional connection team members experience. Another term for this emotional connection is “empathy.” Empathy plays an important role in every aspect of life, including cross-cultural work settings. Let’s look at how global companies can promote empathy across their organizations.

What Is International Workplace Empathy?

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and share their feelings. Some similar terms are compassion, understanding, and rapport. Members of a company need to understand each other to maintain a positive and productive work culture.

When it comes to global companies, empathy can be more difficult to foster due to different cultures and backgrounds. However, overcoming these differences is key to promoting unity and empathy among your international employees.

Intercultural empathy consists of three related dimensions:

  • Cognitive empathy: This is a person’s ability to imagine themselves in another person’s position.
  • Emotional empathy: This takes the imagining a step further to feeling an emotion on behalf of another person.
  • Behavioral empathy: This is the demonstrable part of empathy, where you treat someone in a way that shows you understand and care.

When a person thinks, feels, and acts in a way that shows empathy, they are deemed empathetic or an empath. Encouraging workers at all levels of a company to be empathetic, particularly toward coworkers with different cultural backgrounds, is critical for any international company that wants to succeed.

The Importance of Cultural Empathy in the Workplace

Fostering empathy within cross-cultural teams can lead to some valuable benefits.

1. Effective leadership

For managers who strive to be effective leaders, being able to empathize with all of your employees is critical. Empathy is taking on a prominent focus in the realm of leadership, and for good reason. Empathetic leaders — and in this case, leaders who understand their employees’ cultural backgrounds — are more likely to form strong connections with employees and make them feel heard and valued. This, in turn, inspires loyalty.

2. Enhanced collaboration and productivity

Collaboration can have many positive effects, but it can also lead to misunderstandings and conflicts if not approached with empathy.When employees have cultural empathy for one another, they communicate more effectively and feel a keener sense of teamwork. This ultimately results in productive collaboration, whether it’s in-person or virtually between employees who are thousands of miles apart.

Higher levels of empathy among your employees can also mean higher rates of productivity. When you promote empathy, employees may respond better to leadership, connect with customers more successfully, or collaborate with their coworkers more effectively. All of these benefits can lead to a more productive — and, ultimately, a more profitable — company.

3. Higher morale and retention rates

When you’re running a global company with teams located across the world, it can be difficult to achieve a feeling of seamless unity — where all these teams are working together to help your company grow and succeed.

If employees feel they are being misunderstood because of a difference in culture, they may feel inclined to leave and work for a company that will understand them better. This is particularly true for global companies, where cultural understanding and inclusion is key. On the other hand, companies that understand and empathize with employees will experience higher morale and will be more likely to retain loyal employees.

How to Be Empathetic in Global Businesses

Fostering understanding for others in an international workplace setting is essential to building successful teams, but how can you accomplish this goal? Let’s look at some strategies and steps to help you and your employees create an empathetic company culture that places value on each employee’s background and perspective.

1. View Cultural Differences as Opportunities

Start by checking your perspective on managing or working with a cross-cultural team. Do you view instances of cultural challenges as obstacles or opportunities? One of the positive aspects of international expansion is that your new employees are likely to bring different perspectives to the table.

These different perspectives could include something as small as collaboration style preferences, or something as big as how to market your next product. It’s not unusual to see the status quo as the right way of thinking about or doing something. However, this may lead companies to overlook international employees’ perspectives.

Instead, companies should use these fresh perspectives to reevaluate current processes and determine whether they would benefit from change. This requires an open mind. Even if the final decision is to stick to what’s already in place, international employees will feel validated and that they’ve had their perspectives heard.

2. Avoid Making Assumptions

If you don’t have a thorough understanding of another person’s cultural background, avoid making assumptions. For example, thinking someone isn’t contributing enough in a meeting when that person may be waiting for the proper moment or an invitation to speak before jumping in with their ideas. Giving others the benefit of the doubt can go a long way if you’re still learning about their cultural context.

3. Provide Cross-Cultural Training for Employees

Offer training to your employees focused on ensuring they understand their coworkers’ cultures. Even a single training session can have a positive impact.

If time and budget allow, you could offer a series of sessions on general cross-cultural communication and empathy tips as well as trainings on specific cultural factors employees should be aware of, including:

  • Cultural customs and etiquette: Some key aspects of etiquette to cover include greetings, physical touch, mealtime manners, and typical style of dress. You may also want to discuss whether the culture in question tends to emphasize egalitarianism or hierarchy in business settings.
  • Communication style: This might include whether, based on their customs, employees are generally comfortable with casual brainstorm meetings, where participants throw ideas out as they come up, or they’re more comfortable with structured, formal communication styles, where one person speaks at a time. It should also cover how direct or indirect a country’s communication style tends to be. For instance, employees from high-context cultures may avoid saying “no” directly and instead find more subtle ways to let you know they can’t fulfill your request.
  • Time orientation: In some workplaces, time is money, and in others, timeliness is low on the list of priorities. Western work culture tends to favor punctuality and speed, but this isn’t always the case for other cultures, so explain any differences in attitudes toward the idea of time in the workplace to your employees.
  • Cultural taboos: Cover any cultural taboos your employees should be aware of.. For example, Western cultures tend to frown upon asking people their age, whereas cultures that place more value on age and maturity may see this as a perfectly appropriate question.

These are just a few important topics to cover. There may be other topics to consider as you prepare your employees for interactions with their cross-cultural coworkers.

4. Create More Connection Points

Consider hosting virtual meetings that join together your international teams, even if this means having a translator present to facilitate conversation. You may also want to encourage some employees to travel to other office locations so they can get to know the team there and form personal connections with employees.

You can also host conferences or other events where employees from across the globe come together to learn new skills or about long- and short-term company goals. Make sure you use seating arrangements, ice breakers, or other measures to push employees to mix with each other rather than sticking with the coworkers they know.

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Build Your Global Team With Globalization Partners

With any international team, understanding compensation, benefits, and employment laws in various countries can be overwhelming. With Globalization Partners as your professional employment organization (PEO), or Employer of Record (EOR), you can stop putting your time and focus on handling legal compliance, payroll, and other technicalities and focus on implementing strategies that build empathy within your cross-cultural teams.

If you’re expanding into a new country for the first time, Globalization Partners can greatly simplify the process for you by allowing you to skip establishing a local business entity.

For additional information on building an international presence, download our free eBook, The Complete Guide to Building a Remote Global Team.

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