How to manage a cross-cultural team to success

How can you build an effective cross-cultural team? GA Agency’s Marie Marchal outlines the key challenges to overcome and principal benefits to work towards

To ensure sustained competitiveness and longevity, many businesses are now thinking globally and in turn, inclusively.

The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on business and commerce worldwide have made us all more digitally connected than ever before, and organisations are increasingly looking to expand into new markets in order to grow. The company I work for, for example, is spread across Europe in different timezones with staff speaking more than 10 languages collectively, so we understand that cross-cultural teams are crucial for businesses to trade internationally with success.  

Yes, there are challenges that come with a cross-cultural team, but with the right management the benefits can easily outweigh these. Before I delve into the benefits, let’s look at the challenges and complexities of managing a cross-cultural team.

Three challenges for cross-cultural teams

1. Language barrier –if you have team members for whom English is not their first language, miscommunication can be a genuine concern. This can be exceptionally difficult to manage during busy periods, particularly when people are stressed or under pressure.

2. Working style and culture – cultural differences might be reflected in the ways people communicate, as well as being affected by the perception of another culture. For example, a propensity to say ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ frequently in one culture might mean that those who do not use these terms often are viewed as being impolite. However, for them, this might simply not be their cultural norm.

3. Motivation – we all have different reasons to work, with culture playing a role in our motivations. In some regions, there is a greater focus on pay or bonuses. Plus, the importance of encouragement or praise when a task is completed successfully can vary.

Four benefits of cross-cultural teams

Managing a cross-cultural team can be so enriching when you ensure that there’s space for everyone, and everybody feels part of the bigger picture. To get to this point, however, takes work, awareness and patience. Some of the benefits of having a cross-cultural team include the following.

1. Local knowledge and insights – as well as bringing cultural sensitivity, this can give a business the edge when it comes to delivering high-quality and better-targeted marketing.

2. Competitive advantage – when seeking new business, clients are likely to be reassured if a native speaker and local expert is part of the team.

3. Increased productivity –  in our experience, cross-cultural teams often have greater out-of-the-box thinking, creativity and perspective, which in turn helps a business to drive innovation, offer more services and produce better results.

4. Hiring the best talent – when not limited by borders or regions, business leaders can attract, recruit and onboard some of the most talented people around, which isn’t always possible for those looking inwards.

Six tips to help ensure all employees feel welcome and comfortable  

From an employee perspective, the struggle to fit in can be an issue. Not only do they have to adapt to a language or culture that is different to their own, sometimes they might also struggle to fit into a company culture that, perhaps, hasn’t always been completely inclusive or aware of the challenges they are facing. So, what can be done to break those barriers and make everyone feel welcome and comfortable? At GA Agency, we know the importance of taking company culture very seriously. Here are a few top tips to try and apply:

1. Watch the volume and pace when speaking – slow down, articulate and ask questions to ensure everyone understands you, especially when you know that your audience is diverse

2. Don’t be patronising – some people might not have a rich vocabulary to express themselves in your language, that doesn’t mean that they know less than you.

3. Look for alternatives – explain with an alternative choice of words when someone ask you to repeat, unless it is simply a case that someone has clearly not heard what you said. It’s likely that they just don’t understand a particular word or expression, so avoid repeating the exact same thing.

4. Try to understand verbal and non-verbal language –  this goes both ways and you need to take it upon yourself to adapt outside your own community and comfort zone. It takes time and patience, so surround yourself with kind and open-minded people.

5. Share – encourage your colleagues or team to share information about their culture and background, ask questions and simply, genuinely, show some interest! We all love to talk about our home countries, our food, music, and discover new things.

6. Be self-aware – train yourself to become aware of your own biases and what to do to counteract them. You might, for example, want to start a training programme in your company to raise awareness, not only for your immediate team but also throughout the company, up to the board of directors. This is on our agenda and it’s something that we feel has become increasingly important as our team grows.

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Working in a cross-cultural environment can be so enriching when you ensure that there’s space for everyone, and make everybody feel part of the picture. It starts with embracing cultural diversity in the workplace and encouraging participation. Although it brings challenges, building a cross-cultural team can help individuals develop better skills quickly and, in turn, helps a business succeed.

Marie Marchal is Operations Manager at GA Agency, a digital agency.

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