People are often an extension of their culture in the workplace.
I have been fortunate enough to work with people from many different cultures. Whether as a leader of multicultural teams or as a team member myself, I found that working with multiple perspectives led to a stronger overall product and a deeper feeling of satisfaction when the project ended.
For one project, my team had to develop a unified methodology for the European practice and the Americas practice. There were four groups, represented by about 20 team members in Europe, North America, and South America. Luckily, the language of the company was English, so that helped with communications quite a bit. However, languages didn’t account for work styles, approaches to designing a methodology, and flexibility around decision points in the methodology.
For me, getting the team to interact with one another was a definite challenge. Languages, cultural stereotypes, work styles, time differences, and work expectations all presented significant problems that initially led to team groups struggling to complete our purpose. When we finally completed the methodology and used it to develop training, the final result was powerful because each geographic region in the company could see itself reflected in the final product.
Culture’s fundamental impact
In multicultural organizations and teams, challenges can emerge from cultural sources, and these are sometimes insidious sources of friction and conflict. As someone who is not part of the other culture, you may not expect biases to emerge or people to “not get along” due to cultural backgrounds. Think of the terms associated with different cultures, and chances are you will hear a number of negative stereotypes, including lazy, rude, slow, late, stupid, unfriendly… and the list continues. Cultural expectations flavor the views we have of the world, other people, and our colleagues.
As a distance leader, your role includes building the right team expectations and patterns to encourage cross-cultural communication.
What is culture eating now?
There’s a quote frequently bandied about and (maybe) misappropriated to many people: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast (See more information here.).” I’m not sure what culture eats, but misunderstanding cultural differences creates struggles for distance leaders. However, that catchy statement does give a clue to addressing cultural perspectives: a leader can develop a team culture that completes projects successfully. Developing a successful team culture may be difficult or easy, depending on the work context, but striving to create a solution-focused culture is the role of a distance leader.
Skills or values?
Instead of thinking about the breakfast choices of culture, I would much rather subscribe to Spector’s (2009) view: It is far easier to teach new skills than to develop new values. By focusing on skills, the role of each person on the team has a part to play for the larger project. Your team members bring their cultures with them every time they show up at work, and those cultures are based on values that you cannot control or shape. Let me be clear: Don’t try to create world peace. Try to create team peace.
For the project I mentioned above, I recognized that there were going to be multiple cultural clashes if I didn’t address them at the beginning of the team activities. To begin with, we had multiple points where we refocused on the goal of our teamwork, and revisited that almost every time we had an issue. That certainly helped the team members work with one another with the same perspective.
One strategy that I chose to use was the implementation of “team captains” for each major group. These were my cultural ambassadors, and their job was to keep me apprised of the culture-related challenges that we faced throughout the project. For example, when some of the team members were being direct to members of another regional team on a conference call, it was perceived as rude. My team captains were aware of the cultural differences, and it was my role to help knit the team back together again.
Addressing culturally-charged situations also means addressing very deeply-established work patterns that may not be compatible. Your team captains can help identify emerging problems, and as members of the geographically regional team themselves, the team captains were able to influence their team members and demonstrate positive work habits for the entire group.
Focus on strengths
This is easier to discuss than it is to implement. However, if you have multicultural team members, being able to clearly (and quickly) remind people of the strengths of each of the cultures when problems arise is a powerful leadership skill. As someone who is from the Deep South in the United States and works with people all over the country, I am extremely aware of the different regional cultures and perspectives on my team. What people from New Hampshire contribute to a work project may be a fast-paced approach for change, where the same approach would not work near where I live. Instead, being able to articulate the strengths of each regional group when discussing approaches helps the team appreciate the differences and the strengths that each region brings to the project.
Private complaints and public compliments
Finally, develop a culture that focuses on exploring complaints of others in private discussions. The key words to listen for are “they” and “always,” as in, “You know the City team will always be behind on their deliverables because they work that way.” People complain, and a distance leader needs to be able to listen to complaints objectively. However, hearing something like this on conference call or webinar only creates animosity that alienates entire work groups and prevents collaborative behaviors.
Alternatively, compliments should be public. Team achievements should be recognized, and try to emphasize project goals that demonstrate cross-cultural collaboration. This is actually good leadership advice across the board, but for distance teams that are separated by cultural lines the positive compliment may be even more helpful to generate positive team culture.
If you are given a cross-cultural project tomorrow or are already leading a project now, here are some steps you can take to improve cross-cultural collaboration among your team members:
- Create your “culture file.” A culture file relates to the different cultures you perceive as part of your team. If you can define the different characteristics of the team that may seem unusual or different to colleagues from other cultures, then make notes about their characteristics. Things like, “team prefers to come in later in the morning but work later hours into the evening,” or “team culture does not like to express disagreement directly in group settings,” are very helpful.
- Design your team culture. This should be a collection of notes or an outline of the culture you would like the team to have. In short, this is a picture of how you want every member to perceive other team members, regardless of cultural background. You also want this to focus on the team’s business goals (Tuffley, 2010). Identify strategies for creating mutual respect, trust, and reciprocity in action.
- Identify “team captains.” Identify members of each group that can discuss cultural norms and expectations, as well as be your advocate to the group. Have honest discussions about working together for a successful project, and enlist their help in building a common team culture.
- Build regular bulletins that highlight intra-team successes. Recognizing successful actions that span cultures is a great way to build more of those successes by publicizing cohesion-building actions to the team.
The Results of Cross-Cultural Collaboration as a Distance Leader
Do you have any other ideas for building mutual respect, trust, and reciprocity across diverse teams?
Comment with your answers below!
The two texts cited above are both excellent resources for distance leaders.The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy of each of these texts from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.
Spector, B. (2009). Implementing organizational change: Theory into practice (2 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458: Prentice Hall.
Tuffley, D. (2010). A process reference model for leading complex virtual teams: Helping project managers improve their leadership capability. Saarbrücken, Germany: BDM Verlag Dr. Müller.