How to manage cross-cultural teams effectively

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Rapid globalisation has had a huge impact on work environments, employees and organisations, bringing them together with clients and peers all over the world.

This intercultural cooperation can drive corporate growth and development around the globe, resulting in a heightened demand for a qualified, but diverse workforce.

More and more companies now have a cross-cultural workforce as a result of this globalisation and technology has further facilitated cross-cultural teams to work together. The popularisation of the internet in the early 2000’s, for example, drastically improved the ability for employees to interact with each other. Whether it’s on the phone or through video conferencing, getting people across the world in one meeting has become easier than ever.

Having a diverse, global workforce can have many benefits; it can inspire creativity and drive innovation because multiple people of different cultures bouncing off each other produces outside of the box ideas. L’Oreal, for example, credits much of their success in emerging markets to its cross-cultural product development teams.

Having a cross-cultural team can give a business local market knowledge and insight which can make the business more profitable. Having local connections, native language skills and an understanding of the local culture will boost a business and give it that competitive edge, which ultimately results in it becoming more profitable.

Nikos Bozionelos, a professor of International HR Management at emlyon business school, says “If a task or a role requires a specific skill to a particular country, ethnicity or culture, for example, local knowledge, then it goes naturally that it is the team member who represents that country or ethnicity who will be given the task or role.”

Finding candidates from a more diverse talent pool also means that an organisation can attract, but also retain the best talent. In a competitive job market, a business showing they are a multicultural company can make them stand out to the right candidates. Furthermore, if a workplace is more diverse, the employees will be more loyal because they feel respected for their differences.

However, there are some issues that arise with cross-cultural teams. Firstly, there’s the language barrier. For some, English for instance will not be their first language, and even though they speak it well, certain forms of colloquialisms may not be clearly understood and could lead to misinterpretations.

Also, different cultures have different work styles. Some foster individual thinking, some prefer teamwork and others like the decisions solely to be made by the boss. These different styles could mean that some people come across over the top, while others fade into the background.

While there are many advantages and disadvantages to a diverse workforce, it means that understanding the best way for a business to manage cross-cultural teams has become more important than ever, to ensure that they get the best out of their team and have that competitive edge.

Sankalp Chaturvedi, an associate professor of Organisational Behaviour and Leadership at Imperial College Business School, says that, “Leaders and managers of the team have a very important role to play in making sure the benefits of teamwork can be obtained. For example, the leader should treat and encourage introverts to speak openly, even though there are extroverts in the room who would prefer to talk-think-talk.”

Professor Chaturvedi’s point is backed up by Professor Bozionelos, who says that “team leaders must manage the workflow but also inter-personal/cohesion issues.

“Team leaders should hold regular meetings that apart from work, provide some opportunities for team members to come closer together.”

Academics also say that communication is key to the success of a cross-cultural workforce. Marie-Joelle Browaeys, a professor at Nyenrode Business University who’s just released a book about managing cross-cultural teams, says that the way to communicate depends on the management style of the managers, and also the country where they are operating.

She adds, “The most difficult aspect of intercultural communication is not to set the right frequency of communication, but to create optimal conditions for building a relation of trust.”

Professor Chaturvedi suggests that the best method of communication is face to face meetings, as it is easier to effectively communicate with each other.

He says, “Effective communication requires coherent alignment of content with body language and tone, this becomes increasingly important with a cross-cultural team wherein people have different vocabulary and cultural norms.”

Professor Browaeys adds, “Face to face meetings remain important for cross-cultural team work, especially in the beginning. This can help build the necessary relationship of trust between the team members.”

Having face to face meetings can avoid misunderstandings between team members and build trust more efficiently, that being said face to face meetings are not always possible if your team is global, so the next best option would be a video conference.

Academics suggest that managers of cross-cultural teams should recognise the individual differences that everyone has. Professor Chaturvedi says that we should be “acknowledging and expecting cultural differences” and that it should be part of the organisational culture.

Professor Bozionelos agrees, “First we must be open and acknowledging of the fact that we come from different countries and bring different cultures with us, not to pretend that differences do not exist, but to be overt and cognizant about it.”

As globalisation continues to rise, cross-cultural teams will increase in organisations, meaning that it will become more and more important to manage them correctly. Managing a diverse workforce effectively will only benefit an organisation. 

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