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We live in a highly-connected global community with labour, goods and services crossing borders and regions like never before. In this international marketplace, your organization will likely encounter cross-cultural speedbumps whether internally among staff or externally with partners and clients.
Managing effectively across countries and cultures means adapting to cultural nuances. Here we look at management methods that transform the potential liabilities of cross-cultural teams into what they should be: groups of people with unique perspectives that work synergistically together for a stronger team dynamic.
1. Be Aware, Adopt and Adapt
Being aware of cultural differences is the first giant step. As you observe the habits of a diverse team or a new culture, you will find that most differences are not important. For instance, you may be working in a new office on the other side of the globe and be unaccustomed to subordinates calling you boss, or having to wear an identification badge. Neither of these changes the nature of your duties or how you work with others, so be positively indifferent to it - in other words, adopt it and move on.
The cultural differences to focus on when managing effectively across countries and cultures are those that undercut or impede your ability to work and lead. Be on alert for key cross-cultural challenges and learn to adapt to them, including:
Approaches to communication, including disclosing personal feelings and emotions
Motivational factors, including giving positive and constructive feedback
Work styles, such as how to complete tasks
Information sharing and issues concerning disclosure
Attitudes about conflict and methods for addressing it
2. Find Commonalities
At the end of the day, the vast majority of us - no matter where we live - have far more in common than not. As you observe cultural differences, also be receptive to commonalities between cultures. Let’s say you have started managing a workgroup from another country. You may find that their communication styles differ from your own, but what you do distinctly share in common is a results-oriented approach to work and the reliance on analytics to improve systems. Lean into this discovery to show your leadership credentials and ability to find common ground.
3. Identify with the Global, Not the Local
If you oversee a regional team that is a part of a larger company, place emphasis on the global apparatus, rather than the local office. When you and your workgroup have a sense of belonging to the entire organizational unit, you will feel more invested in its global success, and more likely to share its values and mission.
Organizational identification is a cornerstone for employee job satisfaction and performance excellence in international enterprises. By identifying with the entire network, employees have a higher level of intrinsic motivation to align with global company culture and goals, which also goes far in retaining and nurturing talent. Finally, by emphasizing the global and not the local, you help to overcome cultural differences by showing that they are insignificant compared to the strides made by the larger group.
4. Be the Bridge
When differing cultural assumptions and habits result in misunderstandings or conflict, be the person who finds the middle ground. Managing effectively across countries and cultures is to serve as a bridge that unites a team. Cultural obstacles can best be overcome by discovering a path forward that does not compromise the workers’ cultural identity, nor company goals or values.
A good rule of thumb is to treat each situation as a win-win, whereby the conflict is deflated, and when appropriate, the teams’ cultural differences are recognized and celebrated. Use these moments of cultural dissonance as a learning opportunity for yourself and the team.
5. Check Your Own Cultural Bias
Of course, it is hard to find the middle ground in an equitable way for a culturally diverse team if their leader has cultural bias. Managing effectively across countries and cultures requires considerable self-awareness and examination to identify and root out your own cultural assumptions that hamper your role as a cultural mediator.
To meet your full aptitude as a cross-cultural manager, be very cognizant of making assumptions about the “right way to do things.” Making comparisons about how different cultures do things is not a problem itself; however, it can lead to conflict, bias and stereotyping when values and hierarchies are then prescribed to the comparison - such as, my way of doing things is right and their way is wrong.
It is natural to look for patterns in the world around us and to observe behavioural tendencies in a different culture. Use these insights as a way to expand your perspective, become more flexible and build your intrapersonal skill set to be a more effective cross-cultural manager.
Taking it to the Next Level: Cross-Cultural Leadership
Beyond being a manager, a cross-cultural leader will inspire a diverse team. A true leader will not only serve the important role of flexible mediator during cultural misunderstandings, they will also motivate culturally-diverse teams to come together to deliver outstanding personal and group performances.
Such a leader might develop or rely on a cross-cultural awareness program that facilitates positive team interactions and helps to eradicate cultural bias. A cross-cultural leader will also identify opportunities for skills training to level up employee abilities, and be aware of how these skills needs may intersect with cultural differences. When appropriately recognized and addressed, a training program aligned with cultural sensitivities creates equitable opportunities among staff and engenders the sense that all employees are equally valued.