how to overcome cultural differences

Distributed teams at different countries: How to overcome cultural differences?


Thanks to information and communication technologies (ICT), many jobs have gone from on-site to remote work. In many cases, is no longer needed for employees to move to offices to do their labors. And this has allowed organizations to have the best workers on their payrolls without living in the same city or country where companies operate.

Hiring remote workers advantages are many:

1) Getting the best workers regardless of where they are.

2) Reduce costs of staffing and associated investments related to headquarters, infrastructure, offices, furniture, etc.

3) Be able to increase information levels and collective intelligence in organization hands, intangible assets related to knowledge and skills acquired and shared by collaborators and work teams.

4) Take advantage of technology benefits to achieve more production in less time and effort, with minor consumption of energy and resources, and fewer risks.

Obviously, these benefits are evident when we are talking about workers who are part of similar culture and who communicate themselves in the same language within similar time zones.

But what happens when globalization, internationalization and relocation of workers lead companies to develop foreign operations with multicultural groups?

In this case, things can become more complex but do not have to be less efficient and profitable.

Let us remember that one nation or state can have different cultures, a product of ethnic, religious, linguistic and/or racial differences, and also happens too, different countries share the same culture.

An example of the first case was the stronger regional differences that brought down the former Yugoslavia. And of the second, the vast regions of Europe and America, where many countries live in relative closeness and proximity, despite having different values, norms, and customs, and expressing themselves in different languages.

But those are our time business leaders’ challenges face, knowing how to handle themselves in different geographical and cultural environments, with people that see life and work differently, and for whom the way of doing business is not the same.

Cultural differences that, as the opinion of Erin Meyer, a leading professor at INSEAD and author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business are shown in 8 cultural and behavioral variables that every manager of multicultural groups needs to know, and how to manage, for getting best performance of this groups, minimizing miss doing possibilities:

1) Explicit or implicit communication: In some cultures, such as Asian and Arabic cultures, many things are understood and no one talks about them, while in others, such as USA, UK, and Canada, it’s natural to speak openly about these topics.

2) Direct or indirect negative feedbacks: At the same way as the previous point. In some cultures, it’s natural to give and receive negative feedback frankly, in others is not so a good idea. And leaders need to keep it in mind.

3) Deductive or inductive persuasion: French and Italian people prefer to persuade their teams based on deductive theorizing and analysis, going from general to particular issues. In the opposite way, English-speaking countries use to go from particular to general, preferring inductive persuasion.

4) Horizontal or vertical leadership: In Nordic and Americans there’s a trend to horizontal leadership, and all team members participate in activities design. Not so, in Asian and Eastern cultures, where hierarchy and authority are too marked, where guidelines are discussed at higher levels.

5) Share decision making or not: Related to the previous point, workers in some cultures use to participate in company management. In others, they don’t. They just wait for directions from upper instances.

6) Relationships or results trust: In Spain and India, camaraderie ties and recommendations are decisive for closing deals and contracts. In countries like the USA, Germany, or Finland, results and practical aspects of achievement (prices, deadlines, benefits, etc.) are more important for making decisions.

7) Avoid disagreements or favor them: In some cultures, it’s very important to avoid friction and discussions, taking care of the group’s harmony, while in others, debate and disagreement are promoted to achieve better results.

8) Rigid or flexible scheduling: The Germans and Swiss are rigorous as their watches, for them control of variables is fundamental in planning and programming. Other cultures, like Latinamerican communities, use to be more flexible in this regard and prefer to improvise or adapt in front of unexpected situations.

As you can see, managing distributed teams in different countries is an art, and leaders who assume this task must be true facilitators, with great mediation and integration capacity, leaders who put in practice these recommendations:

Good leadership practices inside multicultural teams.

1) Try to be flexible in different cultures managing teams.

2) Be clear in all that you express without assuming or taking anything for granted.

3) Take a real interest in the culture and values of your team members.

4) Be open-minded and try to learn about your team’s way of doing and celebrate their differences.

5) Show your active listening readiness.

6) Understand how they perceive time in a different way.

7) Pay attention and respect each culture’s holidays.

8) Become aware of your team’s motivations according to their culture.

9) Clearly establish game rules regarding meetings, schedules, language, and breaks.

Quite a challenge that not a few business leaders take on with great results. Globalization and business success can certainly go hand in hand. 

They’ve proven it!