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Cross-cultural teams: More in common than you think

National character plays an important role in business. To most people, Korean electronics and Spanish ham makes more sense than the reverse. And today, people in most countries can join a stern German workplace or enjoy the thrill of French unpredictability. But when people from diverse cultures work together, do you know what tramps national character? Personal character!

In percentage of population, as many extroverts are born in Japan as in Brazil, but life takes them separate ways afterwards. International leaders need to know: When people's environment changes, for instance by joining a multinational team, so do their behaviours and habits. Familiarity with someone’s natural style is at least as essential at work as knowing your team member’s nationality.

Souvenir stores in Brussels offer mugs and shirts depicting the nightmare EU citizen: Italian punctuality, German humour and Greek diligence. The city’s international exposure brought opportunities, but also resentment over cultural biases, feuds and the volatility of a multicultural environment. Similarly, multinational companies and teams are islands of diversity where, it often seems, everything is possible but nothing is certain.

You can build towers from business guides to any country, but few international projects involve just one foreign land. Both research and experience shows that successful global businesspeople get farther by building trustful relationships than by studying the curiosities of local history, folklore and politics. That makes sense: knowing their idiosyncrasies makes people seem weirder. Trust, the core of business, is a personal affair.

Awareness: culture separates us, humanity doesn’t

Noticing the similarities below a veneer of differences is a top challenge for expat leaders of culturally diverse teams. At our workshop in Karachi, the American manager of a German pharmaceutical firm’s local branch shared his frustration over unfamiliar outfits, an array of languages and ethnicities, prayer breaks and a history mostly unknown to Westerners. His management and leadership methods suddenly seemed out of context.

Shockingly, much of the bewilderment melted away as we matched managers (local and international, ladies and gentleman, junior and senior, engineers and HR) based on their Gallup StrenghtsFinder profiles. People in similar behavioural brackets suddenly glimpsed behind the veils, attitudes and biases that had separated them and opened up inspiring new avenues of trustful teamwork.

Skills: Find a culture or make one

Leaders of intercultural teams have a strong responsibility to manage diversity. The views, beliefs, skills and habits at the team’s disposal are like LEGO pieces that can be assembled in an infinite number of ways. Some combinations, however, will yield far better business results than others, making cross-cultural management a truly strategic skill-set.

Take two of my retail clients in Asia: IKEA and Carrefour. The furniture maker consciously applies Swedish attitudes to hiring, management, leadership, customer service and so forth. Carrefour, on the other hand, adopts local retail cultures, treating employees and shoppers in the home-grown way: the Carrefour near my Shanghai home is by no means ‘the French experience’. As long as they are conscious and consistent, both strategies bear results.

Habits: Design, build and nurture

Well done so far, but under pressure we tend to go with our gut, and multicultural teams clash more frequently than homogenous ones. In stressful moments, we revert to blaming problems on cultural differences including nationality, age, gender and profession. Careless words slip out, trust is gone and the team enters a vicious circle of blame and underperformance.

Leaders and colleagues need to treat cross-cultural effort as investment, which yields due to consistent upkeep. And in times of discord, it is much more helpful to understand a handful of natural conflict styles than study Confucius, read up on Protestant ethics or understand other nuances represented in the team. After all, human nature knows no cultural boundaries, and global success stories are testimonies to our similarities much more than our differences.


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