Cross Cultural Team Building

We live in a world with a globalized workforce where many organizations have teams that span different offices, time zones and continents.

Even for a company that operates in one country, the movement of labor across borders means that cultural diversity is becoming a normal facet of the workplace.

Running a team these days is a different endeavor than it was in the past due to the emergence of cross cultural teams.

The usual challenges of team building and fostering teamwork have become even more magnified. Dealing with cultural differences, language barriers and remote team members are some of the issues that today’s managers and leaders face.

Acceptance of cultural diversity and an inclusive outlook are hallmarks of high-performing companies. So how can you better manage your culturally diverse team for peak performance? Here are five tips for strengthening your cross-cultural team.

1. Acknowledge and Respect Cultural Differences

The first step is acknowledging the elephant in the room: address the existence of diverse cultural backgrounds within the team and the necessity of navigating those differences in order to optimize team performance. Cultural diversity can manifest itself in different ways: language, culture, behavioral differences due to norms and values, and even different meaning attached to words, ideas or actions. So it’s important to learn what those differences are because one’s cultural background informs how we interact with others.

A useful model for understanding cultural differences is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension model. The model highlights six dimensions of value perspectives between national cultures: Power Distance, Individualism vs. Collectivism, Masculinity vs. Femininity, Uncertainty Avoidance, Long Term vs. Short Term Orientation and Indulgence vs. Restraint.  

This model provides a great starting point for understanding what drives people from different cultures, and how we can adapt our working and communication styles to work better together in a cross-cultural team.

One way to encourage this understanding of cultural diversity is to discuss cultural differences in a team meeting where everyone can share their cultural background and expectations about communication and working style. You can do this in an informal way through activities such as ice breakers. Select activities where team members get to learn more about each other through asking questions and sharing about their backgrounds.

2. Establish Norms for the Team

Once cultural differences and everyone’s expectations are laid out, the next step is to establish norms for the team. The key is to get everyone to contribute to the formation of the norms. Getting their buy-in makes the norms stronger and ensures that everyone feels committed to living up to them.  

Each team, depending on its makeup and other factors that affect collaboration, will need its own set of rules and norms. You may want to consider issues such as standard operating procedures for timeliness of email replies, email/document templates to ensure clear communication, frequency of team meetings, structure of team reporting etc. Building norms that are specific to your team improves the ease of collaboration and optimizes team performance.

Once team norms have been established, check in with your team regularly to see how effective they are. Be flexible with amending any norms that aren’t working well; something that may sound good in theory may not work in practice, so listen to your team’s feedback.

3. Develop a Team Identity and Outline Roles and Responsibilities

In any team, it’s important that everyone knows what they’re working toward. It is doubly important in a cross-cultural team. Having a shared goal and a common vision on how to achieve it gives your team an identity that can unite them and promote teamwork.

Break down your common goal into actionable steps and outline each individual’s role and responsibilities. This reduces the chance of misunderstandings and lets everyone know that their contribution matters. Clarity of each team member’s contribution also makes it easier to address team performance as a whole. It sets expectations for what needs to be done, by who and when.

Developing a team identity also entails finding commonalities between team members. Encourage your team to get to know each other in a social context. Perhaps there are teammates who share the same taste in movies, music or TV shows. Some may bond over hobbies or share information about their families and children. Personal connections within the team make it easier to work together.

4. Over-Communicate

With a culturally diverse team, over-communicating is a good thing! Most of the time, we take for granted that our colleagues completely understand what we say because they have the same frame of reference or cultural background. But if you’re interacting with team members of a different ethnicity, nationality or background, something that is acceptable in your culture could cause a misunderstanding.

For those of us who are native English speakers, we tend to assume that someone else who also speaks English can understand us perfectly. This may not always be the case! Someone who learned English as a second (or third) language, even though they are proficient in the language, may not get the same nuances, expressions or subtext.

When it comes to electronic communication, the inability to deduce tone or body language can cause misunderstandings. The solution? Err on the side of over-communicating and be careful with word choice. Use simple and clear language when communicating, and check that the other party fully understands what you said. Ask them to rephrase to confirm their understanding. It’s also crucial to cultivate an environment where it is okay to ask questions and clarify any doubts.

Minimize any information gaps in your cross-cultural team. Everyone should be on the same page so that the team can achieve its goal. Giving everyone the bigger picture and the information they need to successfully do their part will reduce conflict and team dysfunction.

Don’t underestimate the value of patience and courtesy. Remind your team that each person’s cultural background informs his behavior and communication style in different ways. Treating each other with kindness and giving your teammates the benefit of the doubt can make working in a cross-cultural environment much more pleasant for everyone.

5. Build Rapport and Trust

Building trust takes time. The tips outlined above, when done right, can help to bond your team and form the basis of trust between team members. Create an environment where your team feels safe so that they can better collaborate with each other. Respecting differences, following through on group norms and having a common goal help build unity within a 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, and is available for free on his website.

Face-to-face interaction is especially key for cross-border or remote teams where employees spend most of the time separate from their team members. While there are ways to ensure that your cross-cultural team can work efficiently even when they’re located in different parts of the world, nothing beats some face time.

Real life interaction provides nuances such as tone of voice, eye contact and body language that make communication easier. Plus, it’s helpful to see the person you’ve been communicating with via e-mail is an actual person! If meeting in person is not possible, try occasional video calls on Skype or GoToMeeting.

If you have more time or budget, consider organizing a team building session or retreat. Having a shared experience helps to connect people. Moreover, you can use the review section of the activities to gather feedback on how communication can be improved; better cooperation can be harnessed, or if cultural differences affected how the activity played out.

Leverage Cultural Diversity

The proliferation of cross-cultural teams presents challenges but it can be handled successfully with sensitivity and respect for other cultures. Most people are understanding and accepting of cultural differences in the workplace, so what you need to do is institute a framework that makes it easier to understand each other and collaborate.

But it’s not enough just to learn how to successfully navigate cultural diversity in the workplace. What we should be doing is leveraging it. Embrace differences, new perspectives and different ways of doing things. Having a cross-cultural team presents opportunities for creativity, innovation and learning from others of a different background. It’s time to start thinking of cross-cultural teams as an asset, not a liability.

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