How to work with teams with different nationalities?

Team Building across Cultures


Did you know that a grasshopper is also considered to be a delicacy? No doubt food will play a role on your cross-cultural team – it is one way to share culture and bond. What role does culture have in building a cross-cultural team?

In addition to national cultures, corporate and functional/professional cultures will influence your team. Not to forget individual differences – age, gender, personality types. You need to be a culturally intelligent leader to steer the team through troubled waters. According to Elisabeth Plum “Cultural Intelligence (CI) is the ability to bridge and benefit from the cultural complexity of people with different nationalities, work areas, professional backgrounds, personalities and organizational cultures”.

Sounds complex, right? If you are leading a cross-cultural team, what should you be most concerned about? In my experience, national culture plays a much less important role for project teams than does the team leader’s behavior. Your personality, leadership style, listening and relationship building skills will play a major role in shaping the team culture. It helps to be sensitive to the cultural norms, customs and behaviors of your team members. Here are a few things that I found useful:

  • First and foremost, focus on the common project goal and team performance. As Katzenbach and Smith said in The Wisdom of Teams: “When people do real work together toward a common objective, trust and commitment follow.”
  • Avoid cultural stereotypes. While good-natured joking about differences in food preferences may help get people talking, you should intervene if people use cultural stereotypes to explain other team member’s behavior. If this occurs, refocus the conversation on project issues and how you can work together toward the project goal.
  • Clarify roles and responsibilities at the beginning of the project. Relationships can be improved and conflict can be avoided by ensuring that team members understand each other’s roles and how they are dependent on one another.
  • Make sure the project goal and tasks are clear to everyone. English is likely to be the working language of a cross-cultural team. However, it may not always be easy to understand team members for whom English is a second or third language. This can be frustrating for everyone. Show patience and tolerance, paraphrase what has been said and ask clarifying questions to prevent misunderstandings.
  • Walk around to see how your team members are doing and what they are working on. Let them demonstrate their work if they have something to show. You will build rapport this way.
  • Be aware that some people may not tell you directly about a problem. Use focused questioning to get to the core of the problem. For example: “What else do you need to complete the task?”
  • Be a leader that people want to follow – what matters most is that you arehonest, forward looking, competent, and inspiring. These are the top four traits that people respect in leaders, according to James Kouzes & Barry Posner.
  • Awareness of cultural research like Geert Hofstede’s five dimensions of culture is helpful but be careful when applying it. Hofstede’s IBM studies reveal averages or tendencies. Keep in mind that you are dealing with individuals who may not fit the average. For example, you may have a team member who cannot say no to requests from senior managers. This could be due to the fact that the person comes from a culture where people are less likely to challenge an authority figure. However, the person might simply be introverted and hasn’t learned how to say no. As a team leader you need to address this. Model for the team how you would respond to requests from senior managers. When you notice that team members are reluctant to speak up, approach them individually and ask focused questions to see where things stand and get to the core of the issue. You might also consider doing a “premortem” simulation at the beginning of the project to help foster a team culture where it is ok to speak up and raise questions. You’ll find more on the premortem exercise in an earlier article.

Since I live and work in Switzerland I will use Hofstede’s findings for Switzerland to illustrate the cultural dimensions:

  • Power Distance Index or how we relate to authority. Malcolm Gladwellrefers to the power distance dimension while discussing airline safety in his book Outliers. Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline during the end of the 1990s. According to Gladwell, a lack of communication and teamwork in the cockpit was a major cause. Co-pilots were reluctant to challenge the authority of the pilot, even when the pilot made a (fatal) decision. The problem has been solved with training. According to Hofstede, Switzerland has a low Power Distance (PDI) of 34. Compared to the world average of 55 and the European average of 45, Switzerland has a relatively equal distribution of power across the population.
  • Individualism versus Collectivism or how much individuals are expected to look after themselves. The second highest Hofstede dimension for Switzerland is individualism (IDV) at 68. Compared to the world average of 43 and the European average of 61, the Swiss tend to be more individualistic than collectivist.
  • Masculinity refers to the importance of traditional male or female values. Cultures with a high masculinity index tend to have greater differences in the roles of men and women. Compared to the world average of 50 and the European average of 59 Switzerland ranks high in Masculinity (MAS) at 70. This indicates the presence of stronger differences in roles, norms and values between Swiss men and women than in countries with a low MAS index like Norway (MAS 8), the Netherlands (MAS 14) or Denmark (MAS 16).
  • Uncertainty Avoidance or how does a culture tolerate ambiguity? Cultures with high uncertainty avoidance tend to enforce stricter rules and familiar structures (e.g. employees tend to remain longer with one employer). Switzerland scores 58 in the Uncertainty Avoidance Index (UAI), lower than the world average of 64 or the European average of 74. A country with a low UAI value such as Switzerland generally has a greater tolerance of divergent points of view.
  • Long Term Orientation refers the relative importance of the future versus the past and present. Long term oriented societies tend to value perseverance and status relationships. Short term oriented societies tend to value personal stability and reciprocation of greetings, favors, and gifts. Most Asian countries score high (long-term orientation), while Western nations on average score low (short-term orientation).

In sum, be aware of cultural differences, focus on the project goal and above all trust in yourself to become a credible leader.

One more thing. Depending on where you are from a grasshopper can be viewed as a delicacy or a pest.

Photo credit: OakleyOriginals

Additional Resources

Leadership & Teambuilding

National and Corporate Culture

  • Geert Hofstede’s Website describing the five dimensions of culture
  • There is an iPod application called Culture GPS that allows you to access Hofstede’s findings on the go. I haven’t used it.
  • Trompenaars’ video explanation of what culture is
  • Or Trompenaars on corporate culture
  • Elisabeth Plum’s blog on Cultural Intelligence. She discusses current views on culture focusing on today’s business reality.

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