Beyond the cultural differences of international teams

An immediate result of globalization is that many of us are faced with the challenge of  participating in, managing or coaching a multicultural team.  Not too long ago, I was  a member of a highly international team based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands.  The team members for the most part shared a background, even a set of shared values and opinions, so it was easy to assume that the most “serious” differences would come from their diverse cultural backgrounds.  In this case we came from 18 countries globally.

The performance of our organization across more than 80 countries depended in large part on the ability of this senior team to work together as a cohesive group – within an accelerated and limited time frame.  Have you ever found that the cross-cultural models you have learned are not always enough to solve the problem or improve the performance of a struggling international team?

Multicultural Teams are Complex

Cross-cultural knowledge is an obvious pre-requisite for working with any team whose members come from different cultures.  We acquire this knowledge from our reading, from our studies, from company-sponsored seminars and most importantly by maintaining a very high level of self-awareness when we step outside our own cultural boundaries.  However managing cross-culturally is complex because real business issues are complex and often require more than a linear solution.  So, how do we avoid the trap of over-simplifying the complexity of the issues faced by international teams?

Let’s agree that there is more to understanding an international team than being aware of the diversity of national cultures represented by the members.  We know from experience that there are key differences found on any team which may include gender, race, individual personality, cognitive and emotional intelligence, educational,  and occupational backgrounds.

Working in this international team and living as an expat in multiple countries as a professional expat over more than 10 years has taught me that over-emphasizing the national cultural differences found in a team can sometimes be too one sided.  Understanding cultural difference is key but alone, is not sufficient to achieve a highly performing team. Other factors include:  the purpose for the team’s existence, the influence of personality differences, the impact of culture, professional identities, the level of emotional intelligence, and the importance of a robust support system for the team.

Purpose of the team’s existence

If we are involved in managing, coaching or participating in a team our first question should be:  “what is the purpose of this team?”  What brings the team together?  Research has shown us that the secret to a strong team is a clear common purpose and identification of each member with that group task..  Indeed the very definition of a “team” is a group of individuals working on a common purpose.  Our first analysis of a team should start with looking at the reason for its existence.  If the team is composed of members from different cultures, once we understand the answer to the question “what is this group trying to accomplish?” we can move on to examine the impact of different factors on the team dynamics.

My international team was exceptionally good at this. It was the common vision, purpose and timeline that we had that allowed us to perform despite the professional and personal conflicts that arose in a year’s period.

The Influence of Personality Differences

One of the factors that became immediately apparent with the multinational Rotterdam based team was that some of the greatest difficulties between team members had everything to do with individual personality differences and very little to do with culture.  It can come as a great relief to any team to recognize that “unpleasant” characters exist in all cultures.  Much of the tension generated by some individuals on the team was a result of their personal style, which had little to do with our native cultures.

However, as I have observed in other multicultural teams, it is a risk for any team to almost unconsciously fall into the  “political correctness” trap and was trying to tolerate unacceptable behaviour because of the assumption of it being culturally driven.  Once teams realized that cultural difference is not an excuse for misbehaving or being inflexible it was as if a great weight had been removed from the collective shoulders.  How to come to this realization?

Using models like the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) or Personality Index (PI) to examine the differences in personality style and to practice ways to make constructive use of the differences.

Like similar personality indicators, the MBTI quickly enables a team to construct a “model” of personality preferences. Team members are able to recognize the contributions of the different personality “styles” and how they actually complement one another.  Team members can learn to respect the differences in “style” which can begin to be valued as “strengths” which the team could leverage.  Extraverts and the introverts can gain new understanding of their differences.  The team can start to become aware of the profound differences, dictated by their genes and past through their personalities, in the way that they gather information, make decisions and structure their environment. Can you think of a better framework to begin examining cultural differences?

Unfortunately there are no bulletproof solutions for personality conflicts. Sometimes the personality of a team member can hinder him or her in understanding these principles and to be able to put him or herself in the shoes of a different team member.  Finding this type of wall on someone else and how to get past this point is something I still have to discover.

The impact of culture

For the past many years authors on cross-cultural communication, such as Geert Hofstede, Edmund Hall, and Fons Trompenaars have illustrated the role that cross-cultural differences play within a team. Their work has provided us with the intellectual framework, the specific terms and the dimensions of culture to open our eyes to the differences in management style, which are influenced, by culture.  The approach that I’ve taken to prepare others to for cross cultural team work starts by helping the individuals examine the values, beliefs and assumptions of their own native culture before they try to analyse a different culture.  They quickly learn to see how geography, history and religion impact values, beliefs and assumptions, which in turn shape the characteristic behaviour of a group. They build a model to understand the dimensions of their own culture and only when this is done they move on to examine the points of convergence and divergence with the other cultures represented in the team.    The point is to learn to recognize and respect the differences.  Only then can the team begin to “reconcile the dilemmas” – as advocated by Trompenaars – which can arise from the clash of cultural differences.

Professional Identities

The Rotterdam team for the most part shared a business related background – still there were few with Scientific or Humanities. As we worked through a time these different professional identities began to become apparent in different approaches to problem solving.   These “sub-divisions” of cultural identity that members bring to a team can be the source of many dilemmas that need to be reconciled.  For instance, it is my experience that engineers, as a group, are very loyal to their profession (fellow engineers) and are very similar in their ways no matter their national culture or the company they work for.  The same is no doubt true for other professional groups such as Finance.  These are true cultural differences that need to be taken into account.   Are there other differences that need to be considered?

Emotional Intelligence

I would like to suggest that the “emotional intelligence” of a team is an emerging factor that should be considered and developed.  Solid research shows that teams whose members exhibit a high level of emotional intelligence come together faster and achieve higher levels of productivity more quickly than teams with less emotional intelligence.   “Emotional contagion” is a very real issue in the life of teams – team members “catch” emotions from other team-members.  We have all experienced teams of highly skilled individuals who seem eager to achieve something together only to see politics, squabbling, private relationships and internal competition corrode the team. I have never seen a team that considered “emotional intelligence.”.  Therefore, I have come to believe that this is of vital importance in team member selection.

Global Leadership Competencies

I believe that leaders who manage multicultural teams (which frequently are “virtual teams:” whose members reside in different countries) need to have a clear understanding of the dimensions mentioned above.  The global leader has to develop a new set of competencies to deal with the challenges of culture.  These skills include understanding that they do not have to know all the answers – they need to be able to learn new solutions with and from their teams.  They need to be ready to “reconcile” the ethical dilemmas that will invariably result from different cultural approaches.  Above all they need the patience, experience, emotional resilience and sense of humour (which correlates with the ability to learn from their mistakes) in order to be able to manage the ambiguity inherent in conducting business across cultures.  These skills are not necessarily taught in business schools.

As for the team I referred to – physically based in Rotterdam – I believe we came together as a “high performance team” and managed in most cases to leverage the incredible synergies that arose from our individual differences. And today, after that intense year, years ago, we are close friends. An international team can deliver a life altering experience.



Filed under Change, Human Resources, Leadership, Resources

4 responses to “Beyond the cultural differences of international teams

  1. Muy bueno artículo María! Felicitaciones!

  2. Gracias Marcelo! Como va todo?

  3. Lavinia

    Reblogged this on Lavinia's Journey and Public Journal and commented:
    insightful stuff.

  4. Pingback: Five Blogs – 24 April 2012 « 5blogs

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