What to Keep in Mind when Leading an International Team
Updated: Jul 15
In the last decade, globalization has continued to increase the share of the global workforce employed in multicultural teams, creating both opportunities and challenges for the managers leading them. (SHRM Foundation Thought Leadership Initiative)
The outbreak of Covid19 has caused a temporary slowing of this trend. Still, as businesses and governments prepare for a post-pandemic rebound, the movement towards international teams can be expected to continue.
Employees from different cultures bring divergent ways of thinking to their workplaces, fostering higher levels of innovation and reducing the likelihood of groupthink. Still, leaders face significant challenges when dealing with the misunderstandings and differences in expectations that cultural differences cause. This blog will outline how you as a leader can best manage international teams, reaping the benefits of diversity on creativity and innovation while mitigating its downsides. 1. Acknowledge cultural differences and make them open for discussion When looking at cultures from a high level, it can be easy to focus on the similarities and assume that work habits associated with them are more or less the same. When team members do this, it can lead to misunderstandings and a perceived lack of tolerance for alternative ways of collaboration.
To avoid this, encourage team members to draw attention to any perceived cultural differences so they can be discussed and clarified. Work with your team to discuss how those differences may lead to alternative ways of working and attitudes and how they impact the team’s dynamic. Articulating these differences will help everyone to be more conscious of them, reducing the likelihood of unmet expectations and a more effective team dynamic. 2. Define the team’s core values When workers change companies, they often bring the values they learned in their old roles with them – the same can be said for international workers who change working environments. This can lead to significant divergences in the perceived importance of tasks and outcomes an issue that is exacerbated by the presence of cultural norms and varying values in international teams.
As a leader, it is your responsibility to communicate your organization's values and translate them into immediate objectives for your team. During this process, it is important to encourage all team members to highlight areas of difference from their previous workplaces settings, as these will likely be reflected in their working priorities. Recognizing these differences preemptively helps smooth the disruptions that arise as the team's new members align around its stated values. 3. Foster Team Member Participation The extent to which individuals are expected to contribute to team discussions varies significantly between cultures. For example, western multinationals often experience cultural issues when expanding to Asian markets because of the culture's high value placed on seniority and a reluctance for more junior members to contribute.
Research shows that giving all team members opportunities to participate increases their level of engagement with work. Because of this, managers of international teams should make it a priority to find ways to include everyone in group discussions.
This can be done through informal check-in meetings where all team members bring up the key issues they're facing and encourage others to offer guidance. Over time, member contribution should be expanded into more business-critical conversations such as project strategy and resource allocation to leverage all member's knowledge and experience.
4. Establish Trust While a team is getting familiar with working together, members will be reluctant to share their insights and opinions for fear of appearing wrong and being ostracized by the group. To avoid this, as a leader, you should create an environment where members can get to know each other personally and find out about their lives outside of work.
Before the pandemic, this would occur naturally during chats around the water cooler or in regular Fika breaks if you're living in Sweden, where The Roll is based. However, these small conversations need to be coordinated by the leader of another group member, or the group risks becoming transactional.
As a leader, your team members should have a clear understanding of your management style and their coworkers' preferred ways of working. To achieve this, take the time near the beginning of a team's formation to complete self-description exercises so that all members know what to expect and feel comfortable providing feedback. Studies reveal that culturally diverse teams bring more varied perspectives to challenges and are thus capable of greater levels of innovation. This, however, also makes them more prone to conflicts and misunderstandings, risking a net loss in productivity for their organizations.
Using the tips outlined above, you will be able to reap the benefits of a culturally diverse workforce while limiting the risk of miscommunication and ensuring mutual understanding.
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