3 Pillars of Success for Leading a Cross-Cultural Team
“In diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” Maya Angelou
Cultural diversity can be a powerful driving force for any team. It can drive you toward your goal with an abundance of creativity and insight or it can drive your team apart.
As a leader, it is necessary to understand the importance of culture and how it affects our communication, decisions, and reactions.
Why Culture Matters
Culture is sneaky. It is ingrained in us from our earliest days and is the set of norms, beliefs, and biases that we rely on to know what is “right” and “safe”.
Unfortunately, we are all walking around with our own slightly different list of cultural norms. We often expect other people to fit into our perception of normal, even though they don’t have access to our list of expectations.
Within a group of people who have all lived their lives in similar contexts, the differences in our lists of expectations will probably be minimal. When you have a group of people from various backgrounds, you will also have more variances in cultural beliefs and norms.
When led well, a cross-cultural team provides a powerful advantage. Since the members of your team view life through slightly different lenses, you will be able to come up with more creative ideas and solutions. Thinking outside the box will become your norm because you are all coming to the meeting with a different box.
However, learning to lead a cross-cultural team well takes intentional work, both within yourself and within your team. These three pillars will guide you toward a thriving, collaborative cross-cultural team.
Pillar 1: Recognize Your Own Culture
Remember, culture consists of the beliefs, social norms, and customs we hold. Since culture has been a part of us for as long as we have been a part of the world, we often struggle to recognize how it influences our lives until someone, or something, challenges our views.
This is especially dangerous for white people. Media often portrays the white experience as the norm, ingraining the idea that it is “the way”. That idea is far from true. There is no one way to live life and normal is an unattainable myth.
To lead a cross-cultural team well, you need to recognize your own culture and how it influences your thoughts and decisions. This will help you learn to distinguish facts from opinions and be willing to accept norms that stray from the ones on your list.
Take some time to reflect on the:
- Groups you belong to.
- Commonly held beliefs within those groups.
- Expectations you have when interacting with others (personal space, dress, timeliness, language, eye contact, etc.)
This is a good activity to do in a team meeting to help all members recognize how their cultural norms and expectations differ.
When something happens that does not fit your expectations or norms, ask yourself, is this truly wrong or is it just different?
If it isn’t causing anyone harm, it’s probably not wrong at all. You feel uncomfortable because you are being forced to expand your list of norms. Sometimes growth is painful but that doesn’t make it bad.
Pillar 2: Build Strong Relationships
Contrary to popular belief, leadership doesn’t happen when you are given a leadership title. As John Maxwell says, “Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flowcharts. It is about one life influencing another.”
You can’t influence someone’s life without seeking to understand their life. These tips will help you build strong cross-cultural relationships with your team.
Henry Winkler said, “Assumptions are the termites of relationships”. These unsaid thoughts and beliefs eat away at our perception of a person without them ever having the chance to defend themselves.
Instead of assuming you know why someone is acting a certain way, ask. Instead of assuming you know the answer, ask. Instead of assuming anything, take the time to ask.
Ask Kind Questions
When asking questions, especially when addressing sensitive issues, be conscious of your tone and the intention behind your question. Asking “Why did you…?” is often perceived as a judgmental attack. Instead, try stating an observation and asking to learn more.
For example: “I noticed that you have been arriving late to our meetings. Can you tell me more about that?”
Get to Know Your Team (and Their Cultures)
Take the time to get to know your team members. Ask genuine questions about their families, hobbies, hopes, and dreams. Listen intently to their answers and commit them to memory.
If you have a team member who lives in or has recently moved from another location, take the time to learn about that location. It is not your team member’s job to educate you. The internet is full of resources. A quick Google search can teach you about anywhere in the world. Take advantage of what is already available to you instead of placing responsibility for your learning on someone else.
If you are having a specific issue with an employee who has recently relocated, or lives in a different cultural context than you do, avoid jumping to conclusions.
Instead, investigate how culture may be impacting that issue. Use the internet, books, and willing community members or colleagues with similar cultural backgrounds to help you explore the issue. Then, take the time to discuss the issue, using the techniques in pillar 3, with the team member.
What you may be judging as laziness, disrespect, or unprofessional behavior could simply be the result of mismatched cultural expectations.
Be Respectful and Kind
Western culture is constantly pushing employees toward more: more hours, more work, and more productivity. What we fail to see is that people are not machines. Constantly asking for more without giving anything in return will only lead to burnout.
Always prioritize your people over productivity. Choose to be respectful and kind. When they know that you have their best interest in mind, they will give you their best in return.
Pillar 3: Communicate Clearly
Clear communication is always an essential part of leadership. However, when your team is made up of speakers of multiple languages or varying cultural expectations, it is even more important to fine-tune your communication skills.
Truly listening is a dying art. To effectively listen to someone, you need to free yourself from other distractions (such as your phone, TV, music, creating mental to-do lists, or thinking of your response) and focus solely on the person.
Listen to their words and observe their body language. Instead of entering into an argument or pushing back on what they said, repeat back what you heard.
Use phrases like:
- What I hear you say is…
- It sounds like…
- It seems like…
Once they have finished sharing their point of view, you can non-violently share your own. Instead of taking their opinions personally or fighting back, present your own needs, feelings, and requests.
When I hear you say _______ I feel _______ because I need _______. Would you be willing to _________?
Here’s an example: “When I hear you say I am not communicating clearly, I feel frustrated because I need to be able to explain my expectations well. Would you be willing to let me know when you don’t understand something I have said?”
Check for Understanding
Unfortunately, no matter how clearly you communicate, there is always room for misunderstanding. Each of us is interpreting messages through our filters.
To ensure that you were effectively heard and understood, check for understanding. Ask, “Would you mind telling me what you heard me say?”
Why should I use non-violent communication with my cross-cultural team?
Each culture has its own set of communication norms. Some are very direct while others talk in stories and parables to make their point. Some cultures deeply value small talk while others view it as a waste of time.
In a cross-cultural team, it may be difficult to simultaneously follow everyone’s communication norms. Non-violent communication allows for clear, non-confrontational interactions that generally work as an accepted middle ground.
If you’d like to learn more about using non-violent communication, Marshall Rosenberg has a series of helpful books on the topic.
Follow Their Lead
In individual meetings, you have the opportunity to cater your communication to one person’s style and expectations. Instead of jumping into the style that feels most comfortable for you, make space for your team member to take the lead.
If they revert to small talk, take a few moments to ease into the conversation with them. If they head straight to item one on the agenda, follow them there. In time, you can learn what communication style works best for each team member and better navigate your interactions with them.
Let your Cross-Cultural Team be an Asset
Your cross-cultural team is a powerful gift waiting to be opened. However, this isn’t the kind of gift you can carelessly tear into in ten seconds or less.
You first need to learn to recognize your own cultural beliefs and expectations. Then, get to know each team member and the unique perspectives they bring to the group. Lastly, learn to listen intently and communicate clearly to ensure everyone knows that their voice is valued and their contribution is necessary.