How cultural differences impact agile team

Companies are often diverse workplaces that are full of people from a spectrum of different cultures and backgrounds. ‘Culture’ is a term that can encompass many different things – our religion, our upbringing, how we view important topics such as gender equality, sexuality, politics and other religions. We are heavily influenced by our families and communities and they naturally help to shape our beliefs and values. Often, we don’t even realize how strong these are until we are faced with someone who doesn’t share them. Although you don’t have to share the same culture to work alongside other people, cultural differences can create their own challenges within a team. As a scrum master, you need to be quick to identify these differences, to help your team through them. So, what does culture influence within the workplace? It primarily affects the way in which individuals and (in the case of teams with a shared culture) the way teams interact with other people. It’s not just the people within your organization either, culture can also impact on the way people deal with suppliers, clients and other people outside of your business too, which in turn can have a domino effect on your reputation. The interactions affected include, but are not limited to how we:
  • Approach our work and fulfil our responsibilities
  • Approach challenges, problems and criticism
  • Deal with conflict
  • Create and maintain relationships in the workplace
  • Use and interpret language
  • Use and interpret humor


Language is a particularly important one to pick up on. Language barriers don’t always mean differences in the language spoken, but can sometimes be the way in which it is used and interpreted, both in person and in communications such as email or instant message. Sarcasm may not be widely understood and can easily be misconstrued. Similarly, slang terms and colloquial language should be discouraged for the same reasons and use of them can lead to individuals or teams feeling confused and side-lined, and create an underlying feeling of distrust. Communication is a vital part of effective teamwork and to be efficient and productive, teams must nail a communication strategy that addresses cultural differences that revolve around language. [optin-monster-shortcode id="fjdxrzpbpm4zayymauhb"]

Team Norms

To help teams to identify and overcome obstacles in the path to efficient teamwork, including those caused by communication the Scrum Master must bring up the conversation early on.  I like to encourage teams to discuss communication while creating their team norms.  Team norms can help by setting very specific guidelines and expectations for when and how team members interact with one another, for example insisting slang or curses are not used in conversation.  Or that if used by one member of the team, that person explains its meaning.  Help the team keep in mind that in some cultures curse words are not acceptable and may mean something very different. Strong language is common to most cultures,  Steven Pinker, in The Stuff of Thought, lists five ways we can swear: “descriptively (Let’s fuck), idiomatically (It’s fucked up), abusively (Fuck you…!), emphatically (This is fucking amazing), and cathartically (Fuck!!!).”  He goes on to explain in Bikol (a language of the Philippines), there’s a special anger vocabulary – many words have alternative words that refer to just the same thing but also mean you’re angry, as an example in Japanese, you can insult someone badly just by using an inappropriate form of ‘you’. "Hell" is one term I particularly use quite often, and forget how it can be offensive to some.  In Finland James Harbeck explains, "the rudest words are saatana (Satan), perkele (devil – converted from the name of a pre-Christian thunder god), and helvetti(Hell). These are also the go-to set in Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish".

When "Yes" is "No"...

In  Western culture ‘Yes’ means ‘YES’ and "No" means "No".  But this is not the case for everyone.   Ed Cohen wrote a post in LinkedIn titled "When Yes was No",  and explains how in Asian cultures only when the person says “YES” without hesitation is "Yes" a yes, other than “YES” without hesitation is most likely ‘no’.  He goes on to say, "however, saying “no” directly to someone is considered disrespectful. Here’s the bottom, line in Asian culture, face-saving is important so you don’t make someone look bad by telling them ‘no’ to a request.  So people all over Asia have developed indirect ways of saying ‘no’ that can actually sound like ‘yes’ (especially to Westerners)". So what can you as a Scrum Master do? Help your team by having them set expectations early on. Use your team norms to discuss the need to answer Yes, or No, and only to take a direct response. Silence is not an answer, so encourage teams to reply, even if it is "I don't know". Coach the team in transparency and how critical it is for the team to excel.

Workplace relationships...

Relationships in the workplace are also one area where cultural differences come in to play. Differences in religious and political beliefs are just two elements that can have a profound effect on the ability of individuals to form solid working relationships. This is particularly true if people are very vocal about their beliefs. While teams should be encouraged to bond by talking about personal rather than business matters, tolerance and understanding of these differences is crucial to maintaining office harmony and keep everyone working effectively together. This is something that a Scrum Master can help teams through, by coaching teams and holding accountable to Scrum values, particularly respect. Now is your turn.  How do you deal with cultural differences? Leave us a comment.  
It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” – John Ciardi