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From Conflict to Cooperation: Building Stronger Cross-Cultural Teams

Michael Henman
Michael Henman
Updated Dec 05, 2022

Managing a culturally diverse team can be challenging. Here are five tips for strengthening your cross-cultural team.

The proliferation of cross-cultural teams presents challenges, but it can be handled successfully with sensitivity and respect for other cultures. Most people understand and accept cultural differences in the workplace. So, you need to understand and accept cultural differences in the workplace too, and must institute a framework that makes it easier to understand each other and collaborate.

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

How to build stronger cross-cultural teams

1. Acknowledge and respect cultural differences.

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

Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension model is useful for understanding cultural differences. The model highlights six dimensions of value perspectives between national cultures:

  • Power Distance
  • Individualism vs. Collectivism
  • Masculinity vs. Femininity
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Long-Term Orientation vs. Short-Term Orientation
  • 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 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 informally do this through activities, such as icebreakers. Select activities where team members know more about each other by asking questions and sharing their backgrounds.

TipTip: More than three-quarters of job seekers and employees cite a diverse workforce as an essential factor for evaluating companies and job offers, according to a Glassdoor Diversity and Inclusion Workplace study.

2. Establish norms for the team.

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

Depending on its makeup and other factors that affect collaboration, each team will need its own set of rules and norms. For example, consider issues, such as standard operating procedures for timeliness of email replies, email/document templates to ensure clear communication, frequency of team meetings and the structure of team reporting. Building norms specific to your team improves 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 need to be fixed. 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 of 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 action step reduces the chance of misunderstandings and lets everyone know that their contribution matters. Clarity of each team member’s contribution makes it easier to address team performance. In addition, 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 some teammates 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. Overcommunicate.

With a culturally diverse team, overcommunicating 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 different ethnicities, nationalities or backgrounds, something 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. Unfortunately, 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 get different 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 overcommunicating and be careful with word choice. Use simple language when communicating, and check that the other party fully understands what you said. Then, ask them to rephrase to confirm their understanding. It’s also crucial to cultivate an environment where it is OK to ask questions and clarify doubts.

>> Learn more: Business Etiquette From Around the World

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

FYIFYI: Inclusive and gender-diverse teams outperform less inclusive teams (gender-homogeneous) by an average of 50 percent, reported Gartner.

5. Build rapport and trust.

Building trust takes time. When done right, the tips outlined above can help bond your team and form the basis of trust between team members. Create an environment where your team feels safe so that they can collaborate better. 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.

Face-to-face interaction is especially crucial for cross-border or remote teams where employees spend most of their 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, making communication easier. Plus, it’s helpful to see the person you’ve been communicating with via email is an actual person. If in-person meetings are impossible, try occasional online video calls on Zoom 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.

The importance of strong cross-cultural teams

Having strong cross-cultural teams can create a positive work environment that meets goals, instills trust and ensures value in each employee. With businesses investing in remote employees internationally, the benefits of developing a global team far outweigh the hurdles. Specifically, they can help you:

Attract and retain top employees

All industries feel the pressure to retain employees. However, the pandemic created a shift in worker priorities, and businesses were forced to make the job and company more enticing to ensure longevity.

By making diversity a priority, companies are more likely to attract and retain top talent. Potential employees are actively looking for employers who value diversity and appreciate flexibility and inclusivity in the workplace.

Boost creativity

Having a diverse workforce can help your team solve problems more quickly. Multiple cultures solve challenges differently and having an open mind can produce creative solutions and collaborative innovation.

Create high engagement

Employees who work for a company that values diversity appreciate the organization’s priorities and are more likely to be motivated to be engaged and have a consistent productivity rate

Enhance positive brand reputation

Once the word gets out that you have provided employees with a diversity-friendly work environment, you can access higher-quality job candidates, industry growth opportunities and even increased revenue.

Gain a competitive edge

A diverse workforce can give your company a competitive edge when venturing into a new market. Employees familiar with local laws or how to adapt a product in a new territory can decrease the amount of time and money you need to expand.

Make fewer marketing mistakes

Targeted marketing in a global world is no easy task. Each country and culture has different values, translations and sensitivities. By having a diverse workforce, you can limit the number of marketing mistakes. For example, running a marketing campaign in the United Kingdom can be vastly different than executing a United States campaign. Having a native UK employee that understands local culture and slang collaborate on the project can give insight into whether the subject matter and taglines would be culturally accepted.

Additional reporting by Julie Thompson.

Image Credit: Wavebreakmedia / Getty Images
Michael Henman
Michael Henman
Michael is a cofounder of the Invest In Blockchain group. After selling a successful online business, he became interested in blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. Michael's goal is to help businesses and investors prepare for the coming blockchain revolution.