It is true that cross-cultural teams offer diverse insights and perspectives yet at the same time cultural difference can hinder how the team functions. While some managers are adept at shape-shifting and adapting leadership styles to cultures and situations effectively there are others who lack cultural intelligence and hence find managing such teams incredibly overwhelming.
So what is cultural intelligence? According to the Harvard Business Review, it is “an outsider’s seemingly natural ability to interpret someone’s unfamiliar and ambiguous gestures the way that person’s compatriots would.” In other words, culturally intelligent people are those who can identify similarities and differences that exist across cultures. This helps them adapt and lead differently because then they develop an understanding of how authority and decision-making are perceived across cultures.
Perhaps this is one reason why it is significant to have the right people manage such teams? “Indeed,” says TN Hari, Head HR at Big Basket. He adds, “Bad management styles and practices are exacerbated in cross-cultural contexts. Frankly, what is often attributed to cultural incompatibility or cultural differences can be laid fair and square at the doors of poor overall leadership skills. As an example, managers who are perceived as unclear in their communication or thought process, or seen as being rude and unaccommodating in their styles in mono-culture teams will be perceived even more so in cross-cultural teams. Active listening and walking the talk are important for credibility in any context, but in a cross-cultural context, poor demonstration of either of these could be fatal. In other words, bad management styles get amplified in a cross-cultural context. If you are leading a cross-cultural team you need to hone your Management 101 lessons.”
But, is this revision of Management enough? Is there more a leader needs to discern than what the eyes can see? The answer is yes.
Leaders need to think about aspects like the presence and absence of management hierarchy in countries where their employees hail from. In South-east Asia for example hierarchy quite sets the tone for the relationship between colleagues whereas in America and Europe people call each other by their first name regardless of the hierarchy. Then there is a difference in attitude towards deadlines, flexibility, rules etc. For instance, in some cultures people are more easy-going and relaxed about their approach whereas their counterparts may be fierce in their deadline chase and prefer wrapping up work way before they are expected to. This clash obviously results in tension. So, definitely, a better understanding of other cultures obviously comes handy if you are in a leadership position.
Here is what every leader who is leading a culturally diverse team should keep in mind.
Get to know your team and nuances of their culture: Some team members who come from cultures that don’t encourage voicing opinions or where it is limited only to those in the position of authority may find it difficult to open up at first. This, in turn, becomes a fairly uncomfortable situation when you hold meetings where people are expected to contribute. Just so everyone’s on the same page you will get to know your team and the nuances of their culture. If they are reserved and keep from participating in group discussions then take note of it. Hold a one-to-one meeting where they may be more comfortable and explain why it is important for them to make a point and be heard. With time you will notice a difference in their confidence.
Don’t impose your biases: Do not go about stereotyping people from a culture different than yours. It is good that you are aware of the differences, but it does no good passing judgments on their preferred communication style. Because once you as a leader start doing so your team will pick these cues and become culturally insensitive which can worsen the tension between them.
Hari adds, “Focus on results and not style of working when you evaluate team members. This way you can prevent your judgment being colored by what in your culture is considered a superior style. Do not make comments on the style of working and go around imposing your style and biases. Besides, do not generalize or stereotype. If you judge people by what in your culture are indicators of success, you are asking for trouble. Therefore stay focused on results, outcomes, and progress.”
Another way of reiterating the importance of accepting cultural differences is through team-building seminars. Says Neeraj Deshpande, Head Team-building at Work Better Training, “Hold team-building sessions at least once a year if not more. One needs to be given an opportunity to unlearn prejudices they associate with people and their cultures. It also fosters understanding. Honestly, the more they communicate over such sessions – and otherwise – the better it is for the team because they will put an effort in understanding each other’s points of view rather than dissing each other off.”
Reprimand the culturally insensitive individuals: There should be zero tolerance towards individuals who find humor in bad-mouthing teams or individuals from a different culture. “Nip such conversations and loose comments in the bud even if they are being made by some of the best performers. If you allow this even once your credibility as the leader of a cross-cultural team will erode irreversibly”, says Hari.
Open door policy
Leave the doors open for anyone to come by your desk and discuss their issues. This, however, will be possible once you’ve earned their trust and have shown a considerable understanding of their culture. So, hustle and get rid of your limited understanding of the country your teammate hails from. Of course, this would take time but you’re your effort won’t go unnoticed. They will put their guard down and open up to you. This exercise will help you chart the course of action.
Hari is quick to add, “In a cross-cultural context, debits to your bank account are swift. You need to build substantial credits - example trust and relationship with the team - patiently before attempting to do things that would result in debits like a decision against the team but in favor of management.
Essentially, if you see, it all comes down to trust. No matter what you do, if your team doesn’t trust you and each other then they will cease to function as a unit. Get your act together, address conflicts – big or small – and play the role of a cultural bridge you are ought to play. Anything you do to minimize conflicts and maximize growth will set examples for others to learn from.