Intercultural Team Building in Kenya

Sticks in a bundle are unbreakable. (Kenyan proverb)

Mauve-blossomed jacaranda trees were in full bloom as an exciting week of intercultural team building took place in October in Nairobi, Kenya.

The entire staff of the Canadian High Commission, both Canadians and Kenyans, took part in four days of training that culminated in a day of team-building activities at the Canadian Ambassador's residence. Heather Johnston, Learning Specialist from the Centre for Intercultural Learning, and Moses Kiggundu, Professor of Business at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, were the facilitators for the training.

Canadians are well-served abroad not only by members of its federal public service, but also by locally engaged staff (LES) from host countries. These LES often work for Canada for their entire careers and are an integral part of our country's management of international relations around the world. Beyond their technical expertise, LES offer an invaluable local perspective on our work abroad.

The training involved 30 different participants a day for each of the four days. All High Commission personnel, from managers to custodial staff, received the same training in mixed work groups. The purpose was to provide everyone with tools and frameworks for decoding cultural behaviour, and then collaborate to create strategies for working effectively together towards common goals and objectives. Of particular note was a simulation dealing with "hidden rules" that guide our behaviour; this activity had a strong impact on the participants.

The High Commission staff also explored differences in Canadian and African greeting styles, and how unconscious misunderstandings can arise from not taking the time to greet people in a relationship-based culture.

According to Johnston, organizations with an international workforce recognize the need for their personnel to understand the local culture if they are going to be effective. "It is good management practice to prepare personnel before they go abroad, but also to provide intercultural team building once in the host country." Johnston added that for staff of two or more cultures to work effectively together, it is important to understand each culture's values and beliefs. Once the differences are understood, bridging those differences can begin.