Preparing to Lead Cross-Cultural Teams (Part 1)

Preparing to Lead Cross-Cultural Teams (Part 1)

In these next four blog posts, I’ll be talking about the four cultural myths to leading cross-cultural teams.  The fourth post will provide some suggestions for resolving these myths.  For our first post, I’ll talk about similarities.

123 rf Image #16096692 used with permission
123 rf Image #16096692 used with permission

You have been assigned to lead a virtual team to launch a new product line overseas. Your product has a cutting edge manufacturing process and technological design elements that will overtake your competitors in leaps and bounds.  Naturally, your company leaders are pushing to move the project forward and meet tight deadlines.

On your team are regional sales and marketing managers in the U.K., Canada, Brazil and Korea. You also have two new channel sales partners in Dubai and Australia.  Other team members will include customer Service Manager in India, an IT Director in Taiwan, and a Managing Director of Manufacturing in China.

You are proud of being selected for this challenge – certainly one that could prove to be a career builder.  So you begin to list all of the key considerations that it will take in order to establish a cohesive and committed team that will work together to produce a successful launch of the product.

If you have ever been in a situation similar to this, you know that it is a challenge to work with a cross-functional team, but a cross-cultural team comprising people from different cultures can be the ultimate challenge.  Why?  Because cultural differences play a significant role in how we think, act, and communicate.  If you’re going to be successful working with people on a global level, there are four culture myths that you need to debunk.


CULTURE MYTH #1: Customs may differ, but we’re all basically the same deep down inside.

It’s human nature to think that all people are just like us. We’d rather assume that we are similar than different – after all, we’re all human – right?  When we believe in this myth, we expect that others will think the same way, perceive the same way, and behave the same way we do.  While the motivating goal probably is to be accepting of all peoples, in actuality by reducing everyone as ‘the same’ we are trying to maintain stability in our own lives.  So we try to figure others out based upon who we are.  This results in an ethnocentric perspective where we evaluate other people and their cultures based on your particular cultural standards.

In order to interact successfully with people who hold different world views and different perceptions as to what is legitimate (e.g., what is right or wrong in one’s eyes) we need to unblock this tendency to not ‘see difference’.  Only then can we begin the process of understanding intercultural differences.

Here’s why.  Culture influences the norms of every group. These norms, or unstated rules, are the accepted and expected ways of behaving and interacting with other people. Culture is something that we learn early on as we are conditioned to act, react, and learn about how people in our world do things from watching them, conversing with them, and interacting with them. Culture includes a group’s communication patterns; how a group solves problems; and how a group perceives and passes on its shared values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, including its perception of self, group, environment, authority, and power. All of us learn different ways of ‘being’ from our cultural group and that influences how we interact with others, so we have to become comfortable with difference so that we can learn to interact more successfully with others.

For example, in the U.S., we generally tend to be direct with our communication – being direct is a manner of saying what you see and what you mean, directly without disguising the message. When handling conflict there is a preference for explicit communication where you are straightforward in identify the problem, diagnosis and then manage it. Part of this can be a personality trait, but part of it can also be a cultural preference.  If your colleague is from Japan his manner of dealing with conflict might be entirely different – perhaps he will use indirect communication that is more implicit in order to mitigate the negative impact of being so straightforward.  A common strategy for handling conflict would be avoidance, which are grounded by deeply held historical and societal dynamics.  To expect that your colleagues would handle conflict in the same way that you do would be counterproductive – and ethnocentric.

In the second post of this series, I’ll talk about functional expertise versus intercultural expertise.


Leave a reply