Teamwork across cultures

Managers are more likely than ever to be working in teams with people of different nationalities and backgrounds. Working effectively in a team of people of mixed nationalities and cultures requires some understanding of what makes these people “tick” – their significant values and beliefs, and the automatic assumptions they make.

By Sally Lansdell

This commentary describes some different ways of looking at culture and illustrates the effect that national differences can have, before bringing these together to provide some recommendations for working smart in a multicultural team. The word “multicultural” is used to denote a team composed of people from different cultures, different nationalities, or both.

Communications

In addition to the obvious problems of communication, due to the fact that not everyone speaks the same language, other differences may cause problems in multicultural teams. For example, people have different conversational styles. British people and Americans interrupt with comments of their own and even finish other people’s sentences.

In Mediterranean cultures, everyone speaks at once. By contrast, in Finland and Russia, serial conversation is the norm – people take turns speaking and everyone else listens without interrupting. When the speaker has finished, other people think about what was said before they comment.

While someone else is speaking a Japanese person may say “yes” or “I understand” frequently, but this does not signify agreement, merely encouragement. Filipinos may smile and laugh when they are angry, which could give others totally the wrong impression. Italians see it as normal to shout at each other and express strong views with a great deal of gesticulation – which would be considered rude to an Austrian or German.

Leadership style

Different cultures have radically different expectations of their leaders, so leaders of multicultural teams must consider whether their own approach will work with all team members. Some cultures seem happiest with leaders who are dictatorial, even autocratic – France and Germany being examples of these. Status in these countries derives from competence rather than personality. Such leaders give clear instructions, often written, and then often leave people alone to do their work. Orders are obeyed out of respect for the boss’s functional role and competence.

American leaders often reserve the right to become autocratic, and are directive rather than consultative. American bosses do not welcome argument or open disagreement from their subordinates, regarding this as insubordination rather than constructive criticism. Leaders in the UK feel they have a right to manage, but conventionally mask orders in the guise of polite requests. They take personal responsibility for results.

Japanese leaders take great pains to avoid being seen as forceful. They are generally respected because of their age or status, but still have to be competent or they will be sidelined. They concentrate on getting the team to work together and are an integral part of it, sharing their information and knowledge and being accessible.

In Italy, authority is based on personal qualities and having the ear of the owner rather than on technical competence. A leader’s most important role is implementation and control, rather than decision-making or strategy. Many Italians consider that they can do their job better than their bosses and have to be personally committed to doing what they are asked, or they will not do it.

“People from different cultures view meetings
from varying perspectives.”

Spanish leaders are thought to be able to solve any problem. In contrast, Swedish leaders are not expected to have the answer. Managers in Sweden see themselves as coaches, planning and coordinating, and giving suggestions rather than orders. In Denmark, professionalism and competence confer authority and being autocratic is unacceptable.

Power is disguised in the Netherlands, and leadership is not overt. There are flexible boundaries between bosses and subordinates, and relationships are friendly and tolerant. In Austria, managers do not worry about ensuring their staff agree with their actions, and claim personal responsibility for decisions that elsewhere may be taken by a team.

Managing meetings

Just as they have different expectations of their leaders, people from different cultures view meetings from varying perspectives. The problems start with preparation. Should preparatory papers be sent out, and will they be read if they are?

In most north European countries and North America, papers are expected and will be studied, although in the UK they are more likely to be glanced at on the way to the meeting. People of other backgrounds will ignore any paperwork and expect the necessary information to be imparted at the meeting itself.

Meetings are held for different purposes. In the US, they are primarily used for giving or collecting information, and also for presenting proposals to be examined and ratified. In France, the purpose of meetings is also briefing and coordination, and in Spain they are to communicate instructions.

Portuguese meetings are not for decision-making or delegation, but are used for briefing and discussion, and in Finland they are for sharing information and solving problems. In the Netherlands, meetings are held for decision-making after comprehensive discussion, whereas in Greece they are for people to express their opinions, usually forcibly, and in Italy meetings are for those taking the decision to test the water with others, not for the team itself to make the decision. Such different perspectives make it important to clarify the purpose of each meeting involving a multicultural team.

Broadly speaking, in northern countries such as the UK, where meetings are an important management tool, full attendance is expected for the length of the meeting and interruptions are frowned upon. In southern countries, people will think nothing of leaving the meeting to attend another one, taking telephone calls, or completing paperwork.

In France, people make presentations after careful preparation, and questioning an idea or proposal is seen as questioning the proposer’s competence. Spontaneity is reserved for informal discussion. In Germany, it is important not to comment about something on which you are not qualified, whereas in the UK everyone is expected to make a contribution, regardless of their knowledge of the subject. In Greece, everyone has their turn and will be listened to but argued with. A Dutch meeting may be for brainstorming, but the ideas are only taken seriously if they are well thought out.

Finally, will the meeting achieve anything? British meetings will often overrun, but are considered to have failed if there is not a result of some kind, be it a decision or just setting a time for a follow-up meeting. In Denmark, meetings end punctually and it is more important to do this than to reach a conclusion, whereas in Finland finishing on time is subordinated to hearing everybody’s views.

Decision-making

Meetings are often held to make decisions, but the way these are reached may differ, as may accountability for them. The British are often reluctant to take responsibility for the outcome of a decision, whereas in the US total commitment and accountability are expected. In Germany, it is assumed that everyone will take the action required, regardless of whether they agree with the decision; in Italy, a decision taken in a formal meeting may be ignored and something totally different actually implemented.

In Denmark, pre-meeting lobbying is unacceptable, as people may be given different information. Consensus is less important than being fully informed. In Finland, information is also vital for decision-making, but lobbying is expected.

Italians and Portuguese will object on principle if a new idea is raised at the meeting without being discussed with them in advance, while in the UK lobbying is often futile, since people are reluctant to make a decision before hearing what everyone else thinks.

The Japanese have a process known as nemawashi, which assures everyone affected by the decision is consulted beforehand, so a consensus is reached quickly at the actual meeting, often based on the seniority or influence of the proposer.

“Differing attitudes to time and punctuality are the cause of many problems in multicultural teams.”

In the Netherlands, taking a vote or using any other process that leaves some people disagreeing with the decision is regarded as unacceptable, although considerable pressure may be brought to bear to convince people to agree with the majority. This is because everyone has to be fully committed to a course of action so that they can be held accountable for it. Americans may be impatient with a desire for consensus, and expect individual rather than collective responsibility for a decision.

In the UK, passive consensus is important, and there is a desire to avoid disloyalty to one’s superiors or disharmony within the team. However, the decision-making process itself may follow an adversarial pattern, with one person presenting a proposal and then having to defend it to the group until they agree to it or to an alternative.

Active consensus is the aim in Sweden, where compromise is not a negative concept and making a decision for the sake of it is not seen to have value. The Spanish like to make decisions on their own, and the best way to reach a consensus is to get everyone to agree with the chairperson rather than with each other.

Attitudes and behaviour

Differing attitudes to time and punctuality are the cause of many problems in multicultural teams. The Spanish mañana mentality is legendary, but in fact probably arises from trying to do too much rather than from laziness. To a Dutch person, lateness and postponements signify untrustworthiness, and the Danes are meticulously punctual. While in Denmark frankness is an indication of honesty and reliability, in Japan, ambiguity and avoidance of directness are prized. In America and Europe, people look each other in the eye as a sign of trust, respect and sincerity. In East Asia, eye contact indicates aggression.

Feedback can be a problem area for multicultural teams. For example, in the US, it is considered valuable to explore mistakes in open session so that they can be avoided in the future. In Germany, this would be seen as a forced admission of failure and is therefore avoided.

Recommendations

Managing multicultural teams follows the same ground rules as managing any other kind of team, but there are additional problems that need to be resolved, some of which we have discussed.

Tips for making sure your multicultural teams are successful include

  • Allow enough time for people to get to know each other and learn to communicate. This will give you a better chance of sorting out misunderstandings and resolving conflicts.
  • Encourage the team to spend social and relaxation time together, so that they get to know more about each other as people, rather than solely in their work roles.
  • Have the team agree on its key values, and make sure the interpretation is clear.
  • Agree early on the ground rules for how the team will operate. For example, define what you mean by punctuality, how you expect people to prepare for meetings, how responsibility is to be allocated, etc. It can help to have some visual signals for particular problems – for example, holding up a red card to ask for a point to be repeated, or a yellow card to denote “I don’t understand you.”
  • Make it clear what the purpose of each meeting is – briefing, decision-making, problem solving, etc. Clarify whether decisions will actually be made at the meeting or if a course of action will have been lobbied for or decided on beforehand and then merely ratified, and if necessary clarify how decisions will be reached – whether by consensus or majority voting.
  • Use visual aids such as cartoons and pictures to communicate important points more vividly.
  • A willingness from every member to learn at least one of the other languages spoken by the team will work wonders. Whatever language you choose to work in, some people will be at a disadvantage because they are not so fluent. Agree what approach you will take in advance – for example, whether there will be interpreters, whether preparatory papers need to be translated, or whether you will accept people speaking in any language that the others understand, rather than in one particular language.
  • Respect and value differences rather than seeking to minimise them. Being aware of cultural differences is not the same as knowing how to handle them.
  • Be flexible – different problems will require different approaches, and the diversity of the team will give you more possibilities to choose from.

About Sally Lansdell

Sally Lansdell is a partner in Lansdell Associates, a UK-based management consultancy specialising in strategy and human resources. Previously the Director of the UK’s Association for Management Education and Development, she currently serves as an Associate at Ashridge College’s Strategic Management Centre.

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