As a result of digital transformation, we’re increasingly working across national borders and department boundaries. Globalization is making intercultural collaboration more and more important: This is the only way for companies to make the best use of their employees’ expertise, whether functional or local.
Cultural differences are often underestimated
Imagine the scenario: At the early stage of a project, a mixed project team encompassing three different nationalities must assign responsibilities. They also need to communicate with each other about approval processes and the deadlines that must be met. However, in the course of the project, unforeseen changes occur. Without a prompt and collective team decision, the entire project will be jeopardized. A conference call is therefore arranged. The meeting is constructive, and the team is able to agree on the way forward. Or so it seems. Objectively speaking, has a collective decision really been reached for all concerned?
What one person considers as a decision may be seen by another simply as an agreement to discuss things further. And a further person may be waiting for their boss to signal that they approve the decision. In short, viewpoints vary based on the cultural background of each team member. In the short term, this can lead to misunderstandings. In the long term, efficiency and productivity will suffer, which is the exact opposite of what was originally intended.
Members of multicultural project teams often underestimate differences because they assume that everyone inside a company will behave in a similar way. After all, everyone uses the same technology and speaks English. This is clearly a misconception: we don’t see things how they are, we see them how we are.
“Be prepared for the possibility that your leadership style may not have the same motivating effect in all cultural contexts. Don’t view differences as a weakness, but instead see them as an opportunity to strengthen your team and your company. Be flexible, tolerant and inquisitive!”
Each culture has a different decision-making process
This results in a wide spectrum of approaches to decision-making, ranging from predominantly top-down all the way to a strongly mutual approach. Expectations about authority can vary from extremely hierarchical to extremely egalitarian.
Employees will lean in one direction or the other, depending on their cultural background. According to a study published by the Harvard Business Review, Chinese colleagues generally tend more towards hierarchical thinking and prefer the top-down approach. In contrast, Japan favors the consensus approach, while colleagues from the United States tend to have a more egalitarian understanding of authority.
For a manager, the first step in ensuring productive, efficient intercultural collaboration is to recognize these differences, to discuss them and to address them.
In a joint workshop, leadership differences can be made visible and targeted approaches developed to make intercultural collaboration successful. Ideally, team members should be given the opportunity to put themselves in the shoes of colleagues with different perspectives and ways of thinking to allow them to better handle the project task in question.
Communicating to build relationships
It is tremendously important that more attention be paid to communication, integration and motivation within intercultural teams. When it comes to communication, today’s digital solutions are particularly helpful if people don’t have the possibility to speak to each other face-to-face. Yet team members not located at headquarters who get no facetime with the project leader need the sort of regular contact that would have arisen in the old days during a chat while getting a cup of coffee. This means that there should also be time for small talk during regular virtual meetings. Nothing is more valuable when building relationships and mutual trust.
The selection of team members is paramount
Against this backdrop, the selection of team members at the start of an intercultural project is crucially important. As far as possible, this decision should not be based solely on technical expertise, thus enabling the team to achieve a high level of performance. At an early stage, the manager of an intercultural team should be aware of differences in culture, language and nationality, or of the dividing lines between headquarters and the national or business organization, and the possible influence of these aspects on the team.
Be prepared for the possibility that your leadership style may not have the same motivating effect in all cultural contexts. Don’t view differences as a weakness, but instead see them as an opportunity to strengthen your team and your company. Be flexible, tolerant and inquisitive!