Building Bridges with Cross-Cultural Teams

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We live in a global society, and one of the challenges can be learning to manage effectively across different cultures. I was fortunate to grow up in an Army family, making my first international trip at the ripe age of three months and then frequently moving around the world in the course of my childhood. Growing up in different cultures gave me a much different perspective of culture and its influence on behavior than I would have had growing up in a single culture. Most importantly, it helped me learn to view the behavior of people in other cultures through their cultural paradigms rather than through my own cultural paradigms. I think that is the one skill that leaders managing global teams should focus on mastering first.

Years ago, I had a conversation with a Japanese engineer that illustrates the depth of the differences one may find on a cross-cultural team. He received his undergraduate degree in Japan and his graduate degree in the U.S. I asked him what he felt was the biggest difference in pursuing degrees in two countries. His answer was, “the size of the book.” I asked him if that was because of the difference between the amount of space kanji (Japanese characters) and English characters required. He shook his head and went on to explain that Japan was a homogeneous society where everyone was educated the same way. The books could be very short because everyone had the same frame of reference in terms of the concepts introduced. Conversely, students in U.S. universities came from a very diverse set of educational experiences. The books needed to be longer to ensure that explanations were detailed enough to provide everyone with the same educational foundation.

From a sociological standpoint, cultural perspectives are a lot like that example. Some cultures are high context, meaning there is an unwritten set of rules of behavior that everyone in that culture understands. Examples would include most countries in Asia, India, the Middle East and Latin America. Conversely, low-context cultures like the U.S. have a very broad spectrum of acceptable behavior. Culture clash can arise when someone from a high-context culture meets an outsider who doesn’t know the rules. The person from the high-context culture sees ignorance of the “rules” as bad and/or rude behavior. The person from the low-context culture doesn’t have a clue that what is acceptable in his or her culture is not acceptable in every culture. In team situations this can lead to lack of communication, open friction or employee grievances. In selling or negotiation situations, it can lead to loss of a sale or an inability to reach a mutually agreeable resolution.

Eliminating Culture Clash

As a manager, how can one best eliminate culture clash in cross-cultural teams? First, learn a little about the cultures of the people on your team. That may be easy if the team membership is limited to a couple of cultures, but a little more challenging if several cultures are involved. Second, create an environment where team members feel comfortable discussing what is working and not working in the process. Many times issues that arise from conflict in perceptions of the “right way to do things” go away when people discuss the differences between their perceptions and reach a mutually agreeable solution.

For example, when I worked at an EMS provider in Mexico, we had a problem with program managers overcommitting to customers. We held an internal team meeting with all program managers to discuss the issue. The answer the program managers gave was that in Mexican culture is considered rude to disappoint anyone. So if a customer asked for something that wasn’t achievable, the culturally correct response was to agree to it and try one’s best to make it happen. When it didn’t happen, the culturally correct response was to explain how hard you tried and have a really good reason for why it didn’t happen. And in Mexico, a person hearing that reason would understand that it was unavoidable and be appreciative that the program manager had tried really hard to make it happen. We then discussed the likely perspective of the U.S. customer and how an affirmative commitment followed by a really good excuse put them in an embarrassing position. From the U.S. cultural perspective, the program manager failed to deliver on a commitment.

Conversely, telling the customer immediately that their request was not achievable and offering them resolution options that were achievable enabled the customer to pick what option would work best. Once the team realized that failing to follow through on a commitment created an embarrassing situation for the customer at their place of employment, it was easy to drive appropriate changes in “commitment” behavior. Going through the process of openly exchanging perspectives built stronger team relationships between Mexican and U.S. team members.

To read this entire article, which appeared in the October 2016 issue of SMT Magazine, click here.


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