Managing a Cross-Cultural Security Force

El Mehdi Serghini, PSP

During the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, the United States Army conducted research on cultural differences and identified the following cultural dynamics: relationship to time, relationship vs. task orientation, relationship to authority, face saving behavior, and cultural differences in communication patterns as the biggest impediments to building trust and collaboration within cross-cultural teams. Moreover, the report states that “cross-cultural concepts such as face saving apply not only to day-to-day relationships, but are particularly important for the teaching and training process.” [1]  For example and for face-saving reasons, a team member may only accept criticism in a one-on-one informal meeting, possibly over a meal or outside the workplace.

Cultural diversity can manifest itself in different ways: language (verbal and non-verbal), culture, norms, values, behavioral differences, and even different connotations attached to words, ideas, or actions. In a cross-cultural security team setting, these dissimilarities in culture consist of differences in perceptions, interpretations, and evaluations of social interactions and professional situations. Security managers have to embrace other cultures as well as create and harness their own team culture in order for their team to succeed. There are two main strategies for managing a cross-cultural security force: acknowledging and understanding cultural differences, and overcoming communication differences and language barriers.

Acknowledge and Respect Cultural Differences

The main and first applicable strategy in managing a cross-cultural security force is recognizing and admitting the existence of diverse cultural backgrounds within the team. Recognition of the culture of a team member is considered the major condition to achieve mutual understanding and good cooperation. For security managers, respecting foreign cultures means first and foremost accepting differences without any judgment and refuting the notion of culture superiority.

An interesting model for understanding cultural diversity is Geert Hofstede’s model of national culture that highlights six cultural dimensions. “The cultural dimensions represent independent preferences for one state of affairs over another that distinguish countries (rather than individuals) from each other.” [2]  Basically, the dimensions of national cultures are indexes that measure a society’s power distance (large versus small), individualism vs. collectivism, masculinity vs. femininity, uncertainty avoidance (strong versus weak), long-term vs. short-term orientation and indulgence vs. restraint.

For instance, participation norms differ greatly across cultures. Security team members from more individualistic countries may be accustomed to freely expressing their opinions, while those from more hierarchical cultures, such as Morocco, tend to voice their opinion in more private settings or only after more senior members have expressed their views.

From a security manager’s point of view, there is a clear necessity to direct the team’s cultural differences in such a manner that it leads to optimizing the team’s overall performance. It is for this reason that security managers encourage their cross-cultural team members to share their views about security matters. This diversity of opinions on security issues gives a more complete picture of the security risks, threats, and impacts on different regions across the globe.

Overcoming Communication Differences and Language Barriers

Verbal and non-verbal communication barriers are rooted in each individual’s culture, values, and norms. They take many forms and can affect performance and morale of cross-cultural teams. For instance, team members from one culture may overestimate or underestimate the degree of opposition being stated when a team member from another culture raises their voices. This can even happen on the flip side, as some Asian cultures use silence and other body language to convey opposition.

Skilled security managers are conscious of communication differences and how they impact the operational functioning of the team. Language barriers can disrupt security operations, put team members and the organization in danger, and even lead to bad intelligence analysis. “Language differences and translation challenges are an obvious impediment to effective communication and trust building in the advising relationship, and can create many misunderstandings in multinational/multicultural teams.” [3]

When team members speak different languages, the language barrier can become a difficult hurdle because in security, it is extremely important that security team members are able to communicate clearly. Cross-cultural security team managers usually have three choices when dealing with language. They can learn the language and culture so as to adopt and understand the other team members. They can hire translators or use a team member who speaks both languages, or they can adopt a single communication language for the team. There are various techniques to be used for each choice and each choice has its advantage and limitations. Nevertheless, successful security professionals that manage cross-cultural teams make the most of other member’s communication differences by tapping into the way people already think, joke, behave, work, and feel.

PSC member El Mehdi Serghini, PSP, is Senior Security Expert at Xact Security Solutions, Rabat, Morocco.
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[1] O’Conor A., Roan L., Cushner K., Metcalf. K. A. (2010, April). Cross-Cultural Strategies for Improving the Teaching, Training, and Mentoring Skills of Military Transition Team Advisors. United States Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

[2] Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind (National Culture).

[3] O’Conor

Chinese and Pakistan border guards at Khunjerab Pass, Anthony Maw, WikiMedia
Security guards, Guelfi
Female security guard, Sky



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