How Building a Team Culture Makes Global Teams More Effective

When you are going to visit a faraway land you can prepare by attending an in-depth culture workshop for that country so that you are at least able to understand what is happening, and maybe to adapt your behavior. But what happens when you are working in a team where members come from many different cultures? You can't simultaneously adapt to everyone so you need to find an alternative solution.

In my experience the most effective solution to this very common problem is to define a new team culture that is not the culture of any single member, but is something everyone can live with.  This means that before the team starts to work together you should discuss how cultural differences will impact the way you work, agree some shared "team" rules that everyone can live with and then manage the communication with people outside the team.

For example, people in hierarchical cultures like to copy their boss in emails while people from less hierarchical cultures tend to copy people less often. Once both sides understand the problem what often happens is that the team members carry on doing what they have always been doing but at least it doesn't cause misunderstandings in the team. Or if some team members are used to strict schedules and others are used to flexibility it is quite common for everyone to agree to follow strict schedules, since this is an adaptation many people are used to anyway.

There are many culture factors that can affect the performance of a team, and some of these are explained in the related posts listed below, but the most common issues you will encounter all concern three key concepts:

SCHEDULES AND DEADLINES. Some people like to follow very strictly any schedule or deadline. They also tend to be more comfortable with step-by-step processes. Others are used to a much greater degree of flexibility and are more comfortable when they can adapt quickly to changes, modifying plans. This will impact the team first when then they try to meet at H hour only to find that at H+15' half the people are not on the call. It also impacts the way people consider deadlines. Better delivered on time or better late but better?  You should agree these rules at the start.

COMMUNICATIONS PRACTICE. Many people copy bosses in all their emails, others don't. Some people send a quick preliminary reply; others say nothing until they have all the answers.  Some send thank you notes while others consider them a waste of time. Some people like personal phone calls; some prefer impersonal messages. To avoid unnecessary conflicts it is safer to agree what will be the team norms.

ROLE OF MEETINGS. Perhaps most surprisingly, teams can generate conflicts simply because they have not understood that different cultures have different ideas about the function of a meeting. To some it is the place to air new ideas, brainstorm, critique mistakes and so on. In others it is just a place to make formal presentations of points already agreed by consensus. To some it might also have the power to decide while to others the conclusions are merely recommendations and the decision is taken elsewhere.

Most teams usually do end up creating some sort of new culture simply because this is the way humans deal with this kind of problem automatically, but by applying some intercultural knowhow you can make this process much faster and much less painful. Some organizations even deliberately set out to build a team spirit, often through shared training and experiences -- a corporate version of the military bootcamp -- but even if your organization is not managing this process you can easily make it happen yourself. Among the many skills needed to lead project teams effectively this is perhaps one of the most underutilized and a great opportunity for people to bring a visible improvement in performance with a minimal investment in time and effort.

More about networking.

There's more about networking in my book Payforward Networking. available in paperback and Kindle editions.

Related posts about intercultural issues:

Culture and Technology. How Cultural Factors Impact Engineering Decisions
Why the Office Weasel Can Play a Useful Role in Hierarchical Organizations
Managing Across Cultures Three Non-obvious Issues to Watch For
Three Non-Obvious Ways Culture Affects Email 
Three Non-Obvious Issues in Multicultural Meetings  
Culture, Innovation and the Curious Case of Pandora Radio.  

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