3 Critical Success Factors for Cross-Cultural Teams

Supporting your cross-cultural teams to achieve better results The experience of the pandemic and the resulting, accelerated digital transformation has catapulted our ability to work […]

Supporting your cross-cultural teams to achieve better results

The experience of the pandemic and the resulting, accelerated digital transformation has catapulted our ability to work virtually which has, for many, unlocked the opportunity of teamworking beyond boundaries. This has been a critical opportunity to capture diversity of skills, knowledge and thinking to support research and development within organisations. Many organisations, of course, have been working this way, particularly in heavily matrixed structures for many years. It is true in both situations that the opportunity to harness cross-cultural talent presents some critical success factors which leaders and organisations must consider to ensure cross-cultural working success.

Creating the conditions for successful collaboration.

Common ground must be established through setting of expectations and some norms for behaviours. Purpose and process should be agreed early on so that all team members are aligned and engaged to the vision and desired outcomes for the team. Values inform behaviours and are a great foundation on which to build consensus for behaviours as the team proceeds. Trust and respect are equally important, and time spent on building the conditions for this to happen is well spent. Teams can work together to identify each other’s strengths as well as their roles and expected contribution to the team; Primeast employ several tools to support this process and guide teams through the process of extracting insights from the completed assessments. The power of unlocking this awareness can be measured directly in the results and experience of the team as they achieve their desired goals.

Understanding, awareness, and empathy

Cultural intelligence (CQ) is critical to bridge cultural gaps that may prohibit successful teamworking and is one of the essential ‘human skills’ that must be developed to unlock cross-cultural teamworking. Cultural understanding and an appreciation of the other’s perspective and different ways of working encourages a shared sense of responsibility and recognition when activities are completed and progress is observed and measured. It removes the potential for misunderstanding, conflict and barriers to communication and allows the whole team to benefit from different backgrounds and perspectives.

This embracing of diversity of thinking reduces the incidences of confusion which cause unwelcome distractions that are contrary to the team’s success. Team members will also benefit from the learning and teaching that occurs when a culture of cultural intelligence is established. Primeast employ several tools which support the promotion of cultural understanding and appreciation of different perspectives including Globe Smart, DiSC and EQi to name a few and not including bespoke assessments and activities we create for clients. When designing a cross-cultural teamworking programme we identify the true, sometime hidden barriers and select the best tool to achieve the desired result. Team building activities will help individuals bond with each other and are often an important element in cross-cultural team development.

Communication is everything

Leaders and participants of cross-cultural teams must master the nuances of communication and expression and encourage empathy and understanding for diverse communication styles. When working virtually it is important to be mindful of the mode of communication and to ensure the best method of delivery or communication is selected for the message, purpose and audience. There are a range of tools and frameworks which can be adopted to help find common ground with communication.

Listening is also important when it comes to sharing information and understanding (read more in our article on generative listening)- checking back and mirroring are simple-to-adopt techniques to ensure everyone is clear about the intention and message. Questions can help team members dig deeper to ensure they appreciate the various perspectives which might be influencing the communication style. Be curious and dig deeper – you’ll be surprised what you will uncover. Be clear about how team members can express and contribute when working together or in meetings and make sure voices are heard and valued.

Primeast has been working with organisations for over 30 years helping to develop high performing cross-cultural teams. Our facilitators are highly experienced at providing the conditions for teams to begin to understand the strengths and differences they can harness to improve communication, productivity, and results. With supporting coaching, we have created sustained change in performance which has proven to have a significant impact on the business.

You can read more about one such programme we created for a leading pharmaceutical company seeking to unlock the potential of cross-cultural, multi-disciplined matrix teams responsible for working together as part of the clinical trials process. The results were incredibly powerful, reducing timelines by up to 14 days which, if you consider the cost of 1 day’s clinical trial project, the impact was significant.

How to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings before they arise

With businesses becoming increasingly internationalized, and in-house and extended teams increasingly multicultural, today’s managers are faced with a conundrum that did not fall on their predecessors: how to communicate effectively across cultures.

In order for businesses to remain effective and competitive, leaders need to engage their employees rather than inform and instruct. There are challenges in doing this: communication contexts differ across cultures. Managers who get it wrong are left to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings. Often, this can be damaging to the organisation’s internal and external reputation.

In the worst cases, the inability to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings can decimate promising businesses and mergers. Think DaimlerChrysler (a merger that was called a ‘merger of equals’ when it was conceived, a fiasco a few years later) or AOL and Time Warner (with the AOL-Time Warner share price down from $72 in 2000 to $15 in 2008), and you’ll realize the damage that cross-cultural differences can cause if left unresolved.

In this post I study a five-step strategy to avoid the need to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings by preparing for them first.

1.     Understand the communication style of different cultures

People from different cultures communicate differently.

Some, like the United States, Australia and the UK, are more direct. Communication is precise and open, and more emotional. This is called ‘low-context’ culture.

Others, especially Chinese, Japanese and Indian, are subtler. Meanings are often not explicitly stated, but instead implied within information provided. This is called ‘high-context’ culture.

Some cultures communicate calmly, basing discussion wholly on facts and acting decisively (linear-active). Others are courteous, good listeners, and amiable (reactive). A third type of culture is warm and emotional (multi-active).

By understanding these differences, you will be able to temper your communication style accordingly and be more effective in cross-cultural teams.

2.     Understand that there will be differences in cultural value

Every culture has different values. These may develop over time. For example, the class-based society that was prevalent in the United Kingdom for many hundreds of years has largely been expunged. In India, the caste system is still very much alive despite being outlawed.

Geert Hofstede identifies five dimensions of cultural perspectives:

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Masculinity vs. Femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Long-term vs. Short-term Orientation

As an example of the above, power distance is the dimension that describes India’s caste culture – the acceptance of inequality between different people:

  • Individualism vs. collectivism refers to the emphasis on individual or collective success.
  • Masculinity vs. femininity refers to the extent to which the culture emphasizes masculine, work-related goals rather than humanist goals.
  • Uncertainty avoidance refers to the need for rules and direction rather than ambiguity.
  • Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation refers to the level of goal-setting in a timeframe context.

By understanding how different cultures ‘operate’ within these five dimensions, you will be able to bridge the gap that exists between your cultural dimension and that of your employees or customers.

3.     Develop effective communication style

When you understand these cultural differences, you can develop your communication style to avoid the need to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings. This ability interlinks seamlessly with high-level emotional intelligence. You’ll become more tolerant of ambiguity, be more flexible toward different cultures, and less certain that your culture is right in all circumstances and situations.

Developing communication skills such as openness and agreeability will help to build respect for you as a leader and engender effective communication. Request and expect feedback to help develop your cross-cultural communication capabilities. By appreciating cultural differences you’ll avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings, which can ruin promising relationships.

4.     Avoid becoming frustrated

It is natural to expect others to behave in line with our own cultural norms. Should this not be the case, instinct is to reject it. Managers and leaders should not show such frustration toward behaviour dictated by different cultural values, though this is incredibly difficult to do.

The way to combat this is to open up to cultural differences. Instead of acting with prejudice, seek to learn more by asking about the values that dictate certain behaviours. This should help you resolve differences in a more understanding and cooperative environment.

5.     Employ appropriate motivations

Motivational techniques and incentives are often dictated by organisational culture, and this is often highly linked to where the organisation was founded or is currently headquartered. Companies often employ a single incentive scheme, with recognition and reward uniform across all their geographical locations. These are often made without regard for cultural differences within teams, also.

When expanding to other geographical locations, employing a cross-cultural team, or seeking to benefit from talent via remote employment, it is possible that your current incentive scheme and motivational techniques lead to a reduction in productivity and effectiveness of your employees where cultural differences exist.

It should be noted that such cultural differences can exist happily within communities of workers. For example, while one person may be motivated by being offered more autonomy, another may reject the freedom as they expect their supervisor or manager to be responsible for the task being done.

Understand how people react and interact, and how you do

Natural reactions are, in large part, attributable to cultural upbringing. By understanding this, a leader is better able to employ the right person for individual cultural diversity and customize the approach to policies and procedures.

However, this is not enough for a leader to supercharge his or her culturally diverse team. It is also necessary to understand how you react and behave, and to what extent these behaviours are dictated by your cultural background. By having such understanding of self, you will be able to be more empathetic toward others in a multicultural team by adapting your leadership style to integrate different cultures.

To find out more

Contact Primeast today to discuss our Management Development Series, including our Energy Leadership Program, which helps develop high-performing managers into inspirational leaders.

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