Multicultural team, international business, international entrepreneurSara sat in her office contemplating the challenges of her new team she’d inherited in Strategic Marketing. With software developers located in various tech hot spots around the global and marketing teams concentrated in Vancouver, Dubai and Luxembourg, Sara needed to navigate both the business challenges facing her company and the cultural differences of her team members.

Cultural Confrontation

Trouble was brewing between Mike, the Development Team Lead in the Vancouver office and Ahmed, Marketing Regional VP in Dubai. On the most recent team call, Ahmed had asked how Mike was doing. Mike tersely replied that he was not doing well because of unrealistic expectations of software enhancements from a Middle Eastern client. The exchange had become heated and defensive for a minute before Sara intervened and asked to take this into a separate conversation.

From then on the rest of the team on the conference call grew increasingly distant and detached from the conversation. What was wrong with these people? And why were they either openly hostile or withdrawn?

Here are some ideas to Sara:

Dig into the Heart of the Issue(s)

What is the reason for Mike and Ahmed’s obvious hostility? Is it Mike’s terse accusation when Ahmed was trying to be open and establish rapport before beginning discussions? Did Ahmed feel personally attacked because the Middle Eastern client falls under his responsibility? Do any of the disengaged team members from Luxembourg know how this team arrived at its current state?

Some issues result from cultural misunderstanding. A little coaching and both sides start to understand each other better. But thanks to human nature, this works only part of the time. Pride can oftentimes be a downfall. Here are some culture clash points to watch for:

  • Direct communicators speaking their mind and being interpreted as rude and disrespectful
  • Indirect communicators not wanting to share what is awkward or embarrassing (this includes anything that is going wrong in the project)
  • Privacy-prizing team members not wanting to share about themselves to get-to-know-you staff
  • Misunderstanding arising from assumptions around status of someone in a higher position than you, so my opinion counts more than yours.
  • The opposite issue where the intern believes he has as much valid input to share as a company executive

Bring it All Back to the Team Mission & Goals

I often recommend dissolving teams that don’t have a clear and critical mission. Let’s assume that Sara’s team mission and goals are worthy of serious attention. Focusing all team communications around that mission and goals can bridge over some of the cultural dissonance especially that which is caused when the team has never met each other in person. (If you can bring the team into the same room, it helps build rapport more than dozens of calls!) Whenever steps away from that main focus, Sara as team leader can help to bring the group back towards productivity.

Hit the Reset Button

The first question Sara could ask is: Are these the right team members to start with? We’ve all experienced a team where we honestly asked ourselves why we needed to be involved in the first place. Are there opportunities to replace team members? This might help re-energize the team. If things have gone beyond the point of any team effectiveness, then dissolving the team completely, creating a new team with a similar mission and new name could help too.

I hope this article was helpful to you. If you need help ironing out cultural or business issues in your multicultural team, please contact me at [email protected].