Living and working in our interconnected, global age – where, for many businesses, employees may be spread across the world – requires leaders to be highly aware of, and skilled at, cross-cultural management. For those organisations without global teams, there is still the requirement to manage effectively across multicultural teams, where backgrounds, experiences, cultural values and communication styles may be richly diverse.
With multicultural and global teams increasingly the norm, employers are seeking business leaders with the tools and understanding to embrace cultural differences and develop high-performing teams.
What is managing across cultures?
Multicultural and cross-cultural teams are those where team members have diverse backgrounds. This diversity may include ethnicity, nationality, age, religion, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or other identifiable characteristic. As well as varied lived experiences, it also includes employees working in different countries, continents and time zones.
Leaders and managers must recognise, acknowledge and support these various differences and similarities to lead teams effectively and with minimal conflict.
Benefits and challenges of managing across cultures
There are numerous benefits that arise from having teams based in different countries and teams with unique cultural contexts. Multicultural teams bring a wider variety of talents, skills, perspectives, knowledge and experiences – which can be combined and drawn upon to work towards common goals. These elements can also bring about boosts in creativity – as fresh ideas and different ways of thinking are added to the team mix – leading to innovation, improved ways of working and potential business opportunities. Crucially, it also serves human resource management; a larger talent pool, made possible through global working, allows businesses to hire the most-skilled and capable candidates. This, in turn, can boost brand image, reputation, competitive advantage and profits.
Research statistics collated by InStride further demonstrate the tangible benefits to cross-cultural working:
- more diverse – and inclusive – teams are 35% more likely to outperform competitors
- diverse companies are 80% more likely to capture new markets
- diverse teams are 87% better at making decisions
- diversity within management leads to 19% higher revenue
However, while diversity is both vital and beneficial in the work environment, it has the potential to cause challenges for leaders who don’t possess the skills to support their teams.
Communication is one of the most-common barriers that leaders are likely to encounter. As well as language barriers – where some team members may find it harder to engage with day-to-day processes due to communication breakdown – this can also span different communication styles, phrases, colloquialisms, slang, dialect and non-verbal communication. The example given by global human resource organisation, Oyster, is communication differences between Eastern and Western cultures; the former tend to be indirect in communication, while the latter generally favour a more-direct, to-the-point style. Not addressing communication issues can mean employees face difficulties in conveying ideas and engaging with colleagues and, in the worst cases, are considered less-competent due to language barriers.
Work styles can differ significantly in cross-cultural teams. Are some team members used to hierarchical structures, or more-collective decision-making? How is authority perceived? Or employee autonomy and independence? Each of these factors, together with numerous others, can present challenges for how teams work together and how individuals expect to be treated in the workplace.
Engagement and motivation can often fail to take into account cultural differences within teams. Do team members want promotions, pay rises, more autonomy, different benefits or praise? A one-size-fits-all approach may not be suitable for recognition and reward initiatives and may lead to dissatisfied staff, increased attrition rates and decreased productivity.
Sharing and disclosing information, and business interactions relating to this, may vary between employees. Factors such as personal information, discussing emotions, examining conflicts and misunderstanding can have a significant impact on team dynamics.
Nevertheless, there are tools and approaches that leaders can take to overcome these cross-cultural challenges and reap the rewards of the benefits.
The best ways to manage across cultures
Which management practices should be examined and embedded in teams which contain different cultures?
Prioritise open communication
Company cultures that instil the value of honest, respectful two-way communication – between managers and employees, and amongst employees themselves – make room for all individuals to share their thoughts, ideas and opinions. Communicate messages clearly and transparently so that they are understood regardless of culture.
Get to know team members and listen to them
Getting to know the individuals within teams helps to build personal bonds, facilitates working relationships and demonstrates that team members are seen and appreciated on an individual level – regardless of background. Additionally, encourage team members to get to know one another better through social events and collaborative work activities. Leaders should also practise active listening, aiming to remove assumptions and biases and encourage trust and collaboration in their place.
Develop cross-cultural intelligence – and be flexible
Cultural intelligence and awareness is vital in our modern workplaces. Policies that apply to all employees, regardless of position or background, reinforces equitable treatment and helps to avoid conflict. Cultural learning programmes can help to embrace and celebrate differences, and could be made mandatory for all employees. If training cannot be offered in-house, there are plenty of providers who can address this requirement; LinkedIn Learning, for example, offers a whole suite of online programmes to support cross-cultural management. Leaders who understand specific cultural differences should also be flexible, where reasonable and possible, regarding diverse needs and requirements.
Work conflicts will arise – and, when they do, they should be dealt with promptly and effectively. Seek to bridge the gap between conflicting parties, and pursue resolutions that respect and benefit all individuals involved, as well as the wider team.
It’s worth stating that all of the business practices and considerations related to global leadership and managing across cultures are, as a general rule, useful business practices and considerations full stop. They have the potential to positively impact organisational behaviour and ethos for everyone.
Bring cross-cultural intelligence and management to your role
Want to create productive, inclusive and effective cross-cultural work environments?
Whether you work in global organisations or not, understanding how to manage and support diverse teams is an essential skill. With the University of York’s online MBA programme, you’ll develop as a highly effective leader with an awareness of the right management practices to use with your teams. As well as gaining key leadership skills, your flexible studies will give you in-depth understanding of project management, marketing, international strategy and operations, finance, and more.