Culture is one of the primary levers people leaders can crank to drive organizational effectiveness. However, considering the diverse makeup of most distributed teams, managing across cultures can be challenging.
To build successful distributed teams, people leaders must navigate and adapt their operations, organizational models, and even language used in daily interactions at work to the varying (and sometimes invisible) cultural nuances of their team.
In this article, we’ll understand why managing cultures is important, its benefits, challenges, and how you can do it successfully.
What is managing across cultures?
Managing across cultures is the ability of people leaders to appreciate, accept, and respect the cultural differences and similarities in the petri dish that’s today's workplace.
Most importantly, people leaders must approach organizational models, dilemmas, and issues without any cultural biases but with an open and curious mind.
Doing this ensures they fully understand the different points of view and can help their organization resolve any issues that stem from these differences.
Why is managing across cultures important for people leaders?
People leaders of distributed teams must understand that how individuals approach issues and decision-making varies based on their cultural biases, experience, and background under the same circumstances.
Awareness of the different approaches to problem-solving and decision-making ensures managers are more practical and empathetic in their role as people leaders. This is vital to the success of any business.
Today’s borderless world means culture isn’t the side dish anymore; it’s the main meal.
Benefits of successfully managing across cultures
In an interconnected, global world, successfully leading and managing across cultures has tons of benefits.
First of all, you reduce the chance of conflict among team members. Understanding and managing the different social norms minimizes the risk of misunderstanding, mistrust, and accidental disrespect. With this comes better communication among colleagues, increased trust, respect, and in the long run, workplace success.
Secondly, with better communication, increased respect, and trust, teams can work effectively together. This improves staff retention rates and overall productivity.
Finally, and most importantly, teams with a good dose of cultural awareness tend to be more competitive. The overall approach to culture within the organization also affects how employees handle customers. They are more empathetic and can respond more quickly to customer feedback.
This results in increased sales and customer loyalty.
Challenges of managing across cultures
Cross-cultural management can be challenging. Here are the top hurdles people leaders face when leading a multicultural team:
Differing communication styles
Communication is a significant challenge of multicultural teams.
It could come in the form of language barriers, where certain team members can’t speak the business's language. When this happens, the team members find it challenging to communicate their ideas or get their message across. In extreme cases, colleagues don’t take them seriously due to their lower-level language skills.
Or in businesses where everyone speaks the same language—for example, English—but have different communication styles and varying colloquial words, phrases, or slang forms. For example, Eastern cultures tend to be indirect while communicating, while Western cultures appreciate direct, straight-to-the-point communication styles.
These issues can slow down day-to-day processes if not appropriately managed.
Differing work styles
Differences in work styles are probably the most significant challenge most people leaders face.
Culture often defines the work style of an individual. This affects their approach to decision-making (does the team make decisions collectively or differ to the team lead?) and authority (how much deference and respect individuals pay to status).
For example, the Japanese are more hierarchical than Americans. However, they tend to take decisions by the collective more than their fellow Americans.
Another great example is the degree of employee independence. The work culture in Asia generally favors teamwork and achieving a common goal, while countries like Germany prefer employee independence and personal initiative.
Most of these cultural nuances are deeply woven into the individual’s psyche. And people leaders shouldn’t expect to overcome this with 200 minutes of cross-cultural awareness training.
Differences in motivational factors
People leaders sometimes make the mistake of defining motivational incentives and techniques by where the business was founded or is currently headquartered.
Uniform incentive schemes or recognition programs across the business are great and easy to scale. However, that can be limiting, and in some cases, demotivating as it doesn’t take into consideration the cultural differences that exist within the business.
For example, an individual might be motivated by an offer of increased pay; another might want more autonomy. In contrast, another might wish for programs that improve work-life balance or intangible benefits such as recognition for a job well done.
Poor management of a multicultural team’s recognition and reward system can lead to a drop in productivity and staff attrition.
Differences in attitudes towards disclosure
Different cultures have different perspectives on disclosing emotions, the reasons behind a misunderstanding or conflict, or personal information.
All these issues can affect team dynamics in various ways. For example, questions such as the following might sound natural to you:
- What was the cause or your role in the conflict?
- Or could you tell me a bit more about yourself?
But these questions might sound intrusive to specific individuals in the team.
How to manage across cultures: 6 proven tips
Several proven tips can help you successfully manage across cultures. The following are the most effective:
Encourage open communication
To successfully manage across cultures, every team member must have a chance to voice their opinions. This helps them feel heard and appreciated by both the management and other team members.
You can achieve this by creating an open line of communication. When planning a virtual team meeting, send the agenda to every team member and actively ask for their opinions. This way, they feel free to speak up during the meeting and will not feel dominated or under-appreciated.
To be a good leader, one must be a good listener. And this does not entail passive listening but actively listening to act.
Avoid making assumptions. Do not allow yourself to be enveloped in cultural biases of any kind, as this can destroy trust among team members. As a good leader, understand why team members from specific locations act the way they do.
Do not overlook anything, no matter how little it might seem. Listen to them, understand them, and develop strategies to help them work better with other team members.
Working with different people from different cultures requires flexibility. Rigid schedules might only lead to frustration for both team members and the management.
Understanding your team members' cultural motivations and priorities enables you to be flexible and accommodate every team member’s differences.
Know each member of your team
Successfully leading a cross-cultural team requires you to take the time to get to know each team member. Make time to have individual calls with them and learn about their professional journey and personal story.
Armed with this knowledge, it will be easier to figure out individual strengths and skills. You will also be able to understand the personality of each team member and guide them better.
Set up cross-cultural awareness programs
Cross-cultural awareness programs are a great way to help team members learn how to interact with each other effectively. These programs can cover aspects such as etiquette, greetings, communication styles, etc.
See it as an orientation program for management and team members. This helps remove any biases that cultural differences might cause. It also educates team members on the different cultural styles and strengths of other team members.
Promptly address conflict
When conflict arises, be sure to tackle it immediately.
Carefully navigate the different cultural perspectives involved and find a middle ground. It is your job as a cross-cultural manager to be a cultural bridge that unites team members.
Respecting your team’s differences and working together
Globalization means that cross-cultural teams are the norm.
Throw in the rise of distributed teams, and this is one trend that people leaders must learn how to manage now and beyond. The key to effective cross-cultural management is a proper understanding and appreciation of each team members’ cultural frame of reference.
Once people leaders can do this, it becomes much easier to manage across cultures and build competitive and effective distributed teams.
Managing teams in different time zones is another challenge that comes along with managing across cultures. We share our tips for overcoming them in this blog.
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