How To Manage a Cross Cultural Team - 8 Key Questions To Know
Virtual teams are advantageous because you can get high-quality work regardless of the distance between team members. However, those distances aren’t always geographic. Teleworkers do their jobs from locations worldwide, spanning a diverse set of backgrounds and societies.
This means virtual teams have to close cultural gaps on top of their geographic ones.
In 2018, Culture Wizard conducted a survey that found 62% of virtual teams had more than three cultures while 89% had at least two cultures. Despite this overwhelming majority, 23% still do not capitalize on their cultural diversity, and 18% admit to missing out on an opportunity because of it.
It’s safe to say the cross-cultural teams are becoming a remote industry standard.
This is excellent news! If you manage or work for a culturally diverse virtual team, you can tap into a treasure chest of potential. Different cultures bring different perspectives and unique expertise that can reshape industry standards and nourish innovation.
Today, we’re answering the top questions about how to manage cross cultural teams. Read on to learn how to build a successful globalized staff.
1. What is the difference between Cross-Cultural Teams and Other Teams?
A cross cultural team requires a lot more attention to communication than other teams. People from different cultures do not express themselves the same way, and failure to recognize this can result in miscommunications and unintended offenses.
There are also pauses in the flow of information. Time Zone differences and ever-changing news cycles mean cross-cultural teams need to take extra steps to keep everyone on the same page. Collaborative cloud software and asynchronous workflows are imperative and need to be implemented.
You’ll see differences in employees' work styles and the way they interact with leadership. For example, some cultures might be less willing to openly criticize their colleague or their boss, while others might be more upfront. As Allthingtalent.com (an India-based HR consulting blog) put it, “Some cultures are more paternalistic, with the leaders deciding on a course of action and employees following it to the T.”
Motivation has a lot of variation on a cross-cultural level as well. The way you motivate yourself can change significantly depending on the team member. Some employees might require a more one-one time than others, but the way you deliver it always has to be respectful and understanding of the context that individual lives in.
2. How is U.S. Virtual Cross-Cultural different from Global Virtual Cross-Cultural Teams?
The U.S is a melting pot of immigrants all bringing their unique backgrounds to form a somewhat cohesive national identity. In many workplaces around the country you will have teams with people from a mix of cultural backgrounds.
The difference with these teams and global virtual cross-cultural teams is that they are mostly made up of people with the same national identity while in a global situation you have several countries working together.
Regardless of their background many U.S teams will share similar cultural experiences and have the same office behavior. However, ethnic diversity of employees still struggles in upper-management positions nation-wide and in the tech industry as a whole.
Globally, cross-cultural teams are prevalent in multinational corporations and in Europe and Asia. It’s normal, and in most cases expected, for professionals working in France to have a colleague from somewhere else in Europe. Employees are used to speaking in more than one language and understanding certain cultural nuances is expected.
Written communication is relied upon especially if the company language is English.
In the United States, people have more of a national mindset and might not have extensive experience working with individuals from other countries. They appreciate familiarity among their coworkers. They primarily work with people who grew up in the United States and get all pop-culture reference.
Extra effort to adapt to someone else’s cultural practices or standards can be perceived as a chore.
If you’re managing a culturally diverse team in the U.S., then you’ll need to pay close attention to how your native and foreign team members interact with each other. Make sure that respect is maintained. People should be adapting together instead of foreigners needing to completely adapt to the U.S. norms in the virtual workspace.
3. What Should You Do about Violated Expectations in Cross-Cultural Teams?
While cross-cultural teams have their apparent benefits, they can be difficult to set up at first. Team members will often have high expectations of an inclusive multicultural workplace that is super productive. However, there are some inevitable growing pains that you can address early on and effectively.
First of all, all global companies need to pay close attention to their pay scale. The average rate for a specific position, income taxes and the cost of living in their country can make up thousand-dollar differences in annual salary. It’s essential to make sure workers on the same team are adequately compensated so that no disputes develop and everyone remains satisfied.
Companies need to avoid developing a two-tier workforce. Westerners who moved to countries with a lower cost of living could expect higher salaries than locals in that country. You could have a digital nomad developer making 3 times as much as one India.
As a business, you’ll have to decide if you will pay based on skill alone or use a location model. It depends on your profit margins as well but equity should always be top-of-mind.
The main goal should be to avoid false expectations from any new hire about their salary and always have a consistent and clear message about your pay scale.
4. What are the Risks Associated with Cross-Cultural Teams?
Most of the risks on a cross-cultural team stem from misunderstanding. The first thing you’ll need to address is any kind of language barrier. Team members need to remember in meetings not to speak too fast and rely on written communication. If you have a Korean employee with B2 level English, they might ace their interview but have trouble communicating with team members who are native speakers.
Many misunderstandings also come from differences in work styles. Individuals already have very different practices regarding the virtual office, and cultural differences make that variation increase exponentially. Someone from India might not blink at a 7 a.m meeting while an Italian employee will barely be able to keep their eyes open.
Of course, this also has to do with the overall temperament of your team. You need to ask team members what they prefer in terms of meeting times and frequency. If your team members are spread out over dramatically different time zones, you will need to coordinate your meeting times more carefully.
Finally, conflict can be significantly more severe on a cross-cultural team. Even if a remark or misunderstanding has no malicious intentions, the cultural context can lead to people taking offense to heart.
If an individual is a part of a cultural minority on a team and feels subjugated or mistreated, it can turn into HR complaints and even lawsuits. That’s why conflict resolution is an essential part of any cross-cultural team.
5. How do you resolve conflict on Cross-Cultural Teams?
When conflict develops on a cross-cultural team, it’s essential to stop it as quickly as possible. Usually, there are two sides to any conflict on a team, and both need to be heard and respected. A leader needs to take the central road and become a cultural link to the two aggrieved parties.
John Ford, the founder of the HR meditation academy, thinks that “Being aware of our own cultures helps us be open to different ideas.”
By understanding yourself, your limits, triggers, and expectations, you can put members of your own culture into perspective and also those outside of it. Additionally, managers and company owners being aware of the context of the day (whether social, economic, or political) will make them better prepared for hot button issues and heated debates.
Once you’ve put yourself into a cultural context, you can begin probing your team to learn more about them and their cultures. Learn every individual's expectations of how the work will be done and how team members should interact with each other. This will help you prepare a plan and structure that is satisfactory to everyone.
Above all else, don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you need clarification about a certain aspect of someone's culture, it’s professionally OK to ask about it. Just make you show genuine interest and provide a thoughtful response. However, before you ask about anything always be sure you would want someone asking you the same questions.
The last thing you need are micro aggressions making people feel uncomfortable.
As a global team leader or manager of a cross-cultural team, your job is also to identify individuals who do not want to adapt. Suppose you notice a particular member of your team unwilling to listen or be respectful of their colleagues from different cultures.
You need to talk to them immediately. Cross-cultural leadership is as much about identifying employees who cannot adapt as it is about helping others do so.
6. What are the Barriers to Communication in Cross-Cultural Teams?
To work effectively, cross-cultural teams need to break down their communication barriers. They need to talk freely about complex topics that can range from personal to professional.
The first barrier that businesses will cross is shyness. If someone is speaking in a language that isn’t their own, they might not be as willing to express their emotions or voice criticism. You need to encourage all remote team members to find their voice regardless of their language level, so no vital information goes unsaid. Try team-building exercises like icebreakers to make coworkers more comfortable with each other.
Misinterpreting gestures is another common mistake among multicultural virtual teams. We’ve all heard about how a head nod for “yes” can mean “no” in different cultures. Have you also heard that looking at your watch in Arabic culture is perceived as rude? Or a thumbs up can be seen as an insult in Bangladesh?
Some cross-cultural training for all the societies on your team will help avoid making the wrong hand symbol for a colleague. You can even have a multi-cultural team member put together a quick PowerPoint about business in their culture if they’re interested.
Finally, you’ll also have to stand how business terminology and practices are understood throughout your team and how they interact with an employee's cultural norm. Some cultures may consider a five-minute grace period before the meeting starts as standard, while others might be offended if you’re one minute late.
Even the word “collaboration” can have different interpretations. Some remote workers might consider that to mean doing other parts of the assignment individually. That will be a surprise to another worker who expected regular meetings and checkpoints with their colleagues.
Make sure you have clear parameters set for each assignment so that everyone understands what the company and their colleagues expect of them. It can also help send out a quick definition guide on office and meeting terms, so everyone is on the same page.
7. How can you Develop Cross-Cultural Competencies through Global Teams?
Cross-cultural competencies are practical professional skills that you can develop through working on a cross-cultural team. The most important are self-management, managing relationships and teams, and managing business decisions. These competencies will determine your ability to work with individuals across countries and cultures (cultural intelligence).
The best way to develop cultural intelligence is through open gatherings of cultural discussion. Whether it’s a seminar to learn about Scandinavian society or watching a couple of Bollywood movies, making an active effort to understanding your colleague's culture is the first step to building your cross-cultural competencies.
By gaining a better cross-cultural communication ability, you’re also improving your overall business competencies. It’s like running with weights on. Once you remove the extra strain of collaborating over borders, you’ll find that you’re better at communicating and understanding remote workers in general.
8. Why are Multinationals Increasingly Relying on Cross-Cultural Teams?
There are plenty of significant benefits multinational organizations can receive from cross-cultural teams. The first is cutting costs. Hiring individuals from countries with a lower cost of living is cheaper for companies than hiring them domestically.
It also expands the talent pool so companies can pick the best from thousands of applicants instead of the few hundred they find domestically. A 2015 McKinsey report on 366 public companies found that those with more ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have financial returns above their industry average.
Cross-cultural teams can make new markets more penetrable as well. If a multinational organization wants to enter a new market, they will almost always look for some of their team to be from that market to provide insider intel. This can be helpful for marketing especially. Nobody understands how to market to a specific country better than a native from that country.
Finally, the world of remote work is growing rapidly. After the COVID-19 pandemic, teleworkers are almost as common as traditional office employees. That trend is set to continue, and companies will be hiring more remote workers to keep up with it. Remote teams are sure to become cross-cultural as the demand for skilled workers stretches beyond borders.
As you can see from most of these answers, cross cultural teams are manageable as long as you are building trust and strong communication.
Employees need to feel respected, heard, and understood regardless of their background. Being tolerant and patient will make this process go a lot smoother.