A team is the synergy of distinct mindsets and skillsets that collaborate to work for a common purpose. It is anyway difficult to manage a team with disparate personalities. What makes it even more challenging is managing a cross-cultural team that transcends different cultures and geographies.
Ever since globalisation has taken over the storm, organisations have begun to interact with clients, suppliers and colleagues around the world. Globalisation at the workplace means dealing with people across several work ethics, languages, traditions and cultures in a way that doesn’t create friction or tension amidst a team.
What are the Cross-Cultural Teams?
Cross-cultural teams are global teams that include people who come from different cultures and unique experiences. Companies fail to consider these fundamental differences within a team, leading to conflicts and frustration that can be easily thwarted once you gain a quick understanding of the individuals in a team.
These differences can stem from communication styles and individual frame of references. For example, members in some countries are willing to work more than the stipulated hours of work, even working remotely from home. On the other hand, workers in different countries may not consider working beyond the said hours except in emergency situations, and their mobile devices are switched off when they leave the office.
Another major difference of style in a cross-cultural team is the communicating pattern of each team member. While some team members vociferously voice their unfiltered opinions and ideas, those from hierarchical cultures tend to think a lot before raising their voice. So, how can you make sure that in such a team all the ideas of the members are heard equally and manage the team effectively?
The Challenges of Managing a Cross-Cultural Team
Though teams are now an accepted norm in planning, strategising and operating throughout several organisations, team management is still in an evolving phase. On top of it, when you unleash an additional element of diversity, it results in various challenges.
Here are the top barriers in managing a cross-cultural team:
1. Communication and Expression
The nuances of communicating in a way such that everybody is on the same page is a key concern in cross-cultural teams. Everybody might be speaking the same language and be well-versed in English, but certain forms of slang or colloquialism can often be misinterpreted.
Teamwork is a collective onus and all members have to understand the direction of the discussions clearly. Communication problems are often found in virtual teams where there is no face to face interaction.
For instance, it could be an international virtual team or virtual teams within the same country or city that have to collaborate and finish a task. In either case, both teams have to make their email and telephonic conversations as clear as possible to mitigate any misunderstanding.
They also have to develop a working style of responding promptly to queries, for if this is not happening, it can get really confusing. Care has to be taken with a cross-cultural mix of people with regards to the words used. Even mildly sarcastic comments or jokes can be taken seriously by a team member and result in a conflict.
For instance, your German counterparts may not appreciate your attempts at small talk, as they usually prefer to get down to business immediately. Also, making a Hitler joke might land you in serious trouble!
2. Information Gaps
Everybody should be on the same wavelength to stay on top of data and process flows. There should be no manual effort to reconcile information from different sources. Each and every team member needs to have access to the right resources at the needed time to collaborate and complete their tasks.
This especially becomes a challenge with virtual cross-cultural teams. Having a common software with access to a shared database and enabling the sharing of files, online chats, scheduling and jointly tracking projects becomes very important. Effective means to share resources and access resources in a timely manner is a challenge.
3. Work Style
Every team member has a unique work style that is predominantly dictated by their culture. Some work cultures value individual contribution and foster individual opinions. Some cultures are more paternalistic, with the leaders deciding on a course of action and employees following it to the T.
All fingers are not the same. This also applies to employees who are individuals with distinct personalities. With unique styles, individualistic team members tend to come out as aggressive while the not-so individualistic ones merge into the team and may seem to contribute less. Despite the differences in the work style, it is vital to filter and get the best out of every team member’s work style.
There can be chances that a section or group of the team has similar cultural identity or homogeneity. They may attempt to dominate the process and try to influence the entire team to swing their way. As a result, it can create unnecessary tensions and a frustrating environment for other team members.
Team and group dynamics can be a major concern in a cross-cultural team. This can lead to unnecessary group politics and conflicts within a team.
5. Motivation Factors
Normally, companies have a single-threaded motivation and rewards system that is largely determined by the norms and values of the company. It does not account for the distinct motivational factors of a cross-cultural team.
The motivators for employees can range from tangible benefits of increments, bonus, incentives, career progression and intangible benefits that include recognition, job satisfaction, encouragement, etc.
It is important to recognise what motivates each individual to excel in their role so that you can drive them aptly towards performance. In the absence of a proper catalyst, the team members may lack enthusiasm and be less engaged at work.
How to Manage a Cross-Cultural Team?
A prime concern in managing a cross-cultural team is to find a unified thread to tie across all the distinct personalities. A one size fits all approach is not an effective solution. Since there are different beliefs and styles of communication at play, multicultural teams are prone to friction.
The good news is that there are simple ways to minimise this friction and manage a cross-cultural team successfully.
According to statistics, culturally diverse teams outperform non-diverse teams by 35%. If you have a cross-cultural team and steer it in the right direction, it can lead to greater efficiency. Companies are afraid to implement diversity with a fear that introducing people who may not agree with each other will hamper productivity.
On the contrary, having different types of people on the same team can help others look at problems prudently while also being more innovative, creative and inclusive about their solutions.
Here are some tips to foster cross-cultural working relationships:
1. Get to Know Each Team Member
It is essential for the team leader to take the time and get to know each team member. Learn about their story and journey. This will help you analyse individual skills and leverage the knowledge to help the group. You might uncover specialised skills that can be beneficial to everyone and also understand the personality of the member at the same time.
2. Adopt Flexibility
According to a book named the Cultural Map, scheduling and decision making are two key workplace values that greatly vary across cultures. Assessing these values can go a long way to understand the priorities of your team members. For example, different cultures prioritise either flexibility or a linear time construct to finish a task.
3. Promote Open Communication
Give every team member a chance to voice their opinions. An open communication line is essential for greater efficiency. Otherwise, team members feel under-appreciated and dominated by either the management or the dominant players in the group.
When attempting to reach a consensus through virtual meetings, plan ahead and ensure to send the agenda well in advance to actively solicit each team member’s opinions.
4. Encourage Team Building Activities
When a mix of cultures is trying to come together in a team, organisations should make every effort to create opportunities for casual interactions. Happy hours, team outings, lunch and learn, birthday parties, pantry banter, etc. help employees to bond with each other despite their differences.
Encourage team members to interact during their downtime and through social events.
5. Listen Actively
Don’t let faulty assumptions and biases to govern your decision making. For instance, the Mumbai team is never responsive, the Singapore members don’t take directions well or the Chennai team wastes many hours in the morning waiting for the Dubai office to wake up.
These types of biases can eradicate trust and prevent collaboration. Instead, a leader should pause and attempt to understand why certain locations or members of a team operate differently. If you overlook the local cultures, considerations, needs that impact each team member, it can lead to unnecessary friction.
Ask questions, listen to your team members and develop the flexibility to manage across different cultures. Listen and enquire more to learn different ways to motivate and mobilise groups with different thought processes.
6. Create a Structure for Success
When you have a multicultural team, you are bound to have different work styles. This doesn’t mean everybody should go haywire and work according to their own methodology. It is up to the leader to establish clear norms and help the members to adhere.
Rather than imposing a style, leaders should take the necessary steps to explain the importance of certain norms and train the members to partake in these efforts. When establishing the norms, try to implement practices from multiple cultures to create uniformity.
7. Address Conflict Immediately
If a conflict ensues regardless of your efforts, make sure to address it promptly before it is too late. Understand different cultural perspectives at play and try to resolve the conflict by taking the middle path. A leader should serve as a cultural bridge to connect different members of the team and bring unison.
8. Create a Cross-Cultural Awareness Program
You can teach your members how to interact with others in different regions and countries effectively. Training and awareness can include sessions on greetings, business etiquette and dining customs. This will help to dissolve the tension and educate members on the prevalent cultural styles of other team members.
This will also enable you to identify and embrace cultural differences rather than ignoring them altogether. Organisations will be able to create resilient global teams and better relationships with clients, customers across the globe.
9. Develop a Team Identity and Clearly Define Roles and Responsibility of Members
In a team, it’s important that all members understand the common goal. Having a shared goal and a common purpose will give your team an identity that can bring them together. At the same time, clearly outline the expectations of each team member and let everyone know that their contribution matters.
Break down the common goal into actionable steps that define each member’s role and responsibilities. This way, everyone will collaborate and work together without stepping on each other’s territory.
10. Build Great Rapport and Trust
Building work relations and trust cannot happen overnight. Take the steps to slowly build an environment for collaboration. Respect individual differences and understand them to build unity in a culturally diverse team.
In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni covers the trust-building benefits of learning about team members’ lives outside of the workplace. His ‘Personal Histories’ exercise involves participants talking about where they grew up, their siblings, and their childhood. You can use such interactions to build trust.
The proliferation of cross-cultural teams might bring challenges, but it can be handled successfully with sensitivity and respect for other cultures. What you need to do is to institute a framework that makes it easier to understand individual differences and leverage those differences to bring out the best capabilities in a team.
Most of the times a clear understanding and acceptance of cultural differences is what it takes to successfully manage a cross-cultural team.
Having a cross-cultural team is the greatest opportunity to learn different backgrounds, innovate new solutions and procreate success. It’s time to consider cross-cultural teams as an asset and not a liability!