A manager I worked with in the European arm of a Japanese company faced rising frustration over their ideas never getting traction. Each time they made a suggestion, it was received well – “Thank you. We will think about that”, “We will study that”. But then they would never hear back. They’d have to constantly chase and follow-up. In the meantime, over in Japan, people wondered why they hadn’t dropped the unsuitable idea – they’d said ‘no’ in the usual, polite and respectful way, what was the problem?
Leaders and managers of global teams face numerous unacknowledged, often unseen challenges. Too often we wonder why international team members aren’t doing what’s being asked of them? Or why they don’t ‘get it’? And, more than likely, we sometimes wonder ‘what am I doing wrong?’. Often, no-one is really doing anything ‘wrong’? Often, despite our awareness of cultural differences, we don’t understand the differences in terms of practical approaches?
What role does cultural differences play in global teams?
Cultural differences can explain everything from: too much communication, or too little; people who treat hierarchy like it’s non-existent, or like a military ranking; and, people upsetting each other by challenging in the middle of meetings, and those that always wait until the meeting has ended to do so (if at all).
Here’s ten ways to get your global team working better together:
Work together to agree ‘ground rules’ around communication (for meetings, emails and phone calls) that will help, then work together to implement them. An example of this could be agreeing to shift the timing of team conference calls so each territory takes their turn with the less sociable hours.
Discuss what positive and negative feedback looks and sounds like in other cultures – build understanding of each other so that you can appreciate each others’ styles. If our European manager from earlier had known how the Japanese do negative feedback, they’d have avoided a lot of issues.
Know the hierarchical etiquette of the culture you are working with. For example: whether it’s important to address certain people in the room first due to their position in order to be polite. This will avoid early boo-boos and get relationships off on the right foot.
Agree the decision making process that you’ll use as a team before the outset of your project. Make sure everyone knows the who, how, when, and how much flexibility there will be on those things, including whether decisions can or will be revisited. This will iron out any cultural differences in expectations and processes.
Remember the standard amount of ‘social context’ expected in any communication differs from culture to culture. You might need to flex your style depending on who you’re contacting and what for – especially if you’ve not been in contact for a while.
In some cultures, publicly offering opinion, feedback or questions is disrespectful – ask a local colleague if you’re unsure. You can separate ideas and feedback from the people giving them by using an anonymised process e.g. questions on post-its into a pile in the middle of the table, or splitting the meeting into two phases on different days – presentation, then later in the week get questions or feedback.
Discuss different approaches to timescales with your team. Some cultures treat plans and timings as no more than a ‘guide’ or ‘advisory’, while others stick to them like dogma. Get clear on which elements you all agree are ‘set in stone’ and which need to be flexible to circumstances.
When presenting, know your audience’s preferences (and encourage your team to do so). Some cultures value knowing the evolution and background of an idea before the conclusion, others want the idea and how it’ll help in its application to be up front.
Some cultures have a broader tendency towards team-working, while others prefer to work alone. Find out people’s preferences and establish the right times and methods of involving and bringing in the wider team so no one gets overloaded or isolated.
Get to know and respect wider elements of your team’s local cultures around the world. Things like observing each other’s public holidays and local calendars are simple but essential (knowing them is a good start so you don’t arrange key meets on those dates).
A good starting point (and another tip when I come to think about it) is to try to make the first meeting (real or virtual) of any global project or team simply about understanding each other, including the environments and cultures within which you operate, and how you will work together to best effect.
We’re so much stronger when we’re all different – we just need to understand each other.