How to Help Teams Work Cross-Culturally

Mar 16, 2017
13 Min Read
How to Help Teams Work Cross-Culturally


How to Help Teams Work Cross-Culturally


Lionel Messi is a beloved Argentinian soccer player who became a lightning rod for criticism last year when he offered a pair of his used soccer shoes as a donation during an Egyptian charity fundraiser on television.

“We (Egyptians) have never been so humiliated during our 7,000 years of civilization," said Said Hasasin, a parliament member.

Unknown to Messi was that in the Arab culture, a shoe is considered lowly because it touches the ground. Calling someone a “gazma,” the Arabic word for shoe, is considered a big insult.

Those are the kind of cultural mistakes that garner a lot of publicity, but it’s unlikely that many people have run into the same problem.

Or have they? With the number of cultures melding in the workplace today and the growing reliance on worldwide teams, the chances of unknowingly offending someone is growing. For example, there are currently about 42 million documented immigrants in the U.S., more than four times the number in the 1970s. Pew research finds that 43% of Millennials are not white, and non-Hispanic white births fell below 50% for the first time in 2011.

That’s why even if your teams don’t travel internationally, chances are increasing that there is going to be more “culture crashing” in a workplace that can hurt productivity, collaboration and the bottom line, says Michael Landers, author of “Culture Crossing: Discover the key to Making Successful Connections in the New Global Era.

Landers  explains that a “culture crash” is when you unknowingly offend someone else. It can happen when a U.S. employee for example, offends a customer from Asia. Or, it can even happen when a team member from New York communicates in what is considered a brash and overbearing way to an employee from Atlanta, he says.

In addition, there are plenty of horror stories such as Messi’s that make employees even more worried that a cultural misstep could gain the recognition of others and possibly damage their careers and a company’s reputation.

For example, one American businessman says he unknowingly offended a Scottish businessman when he asked about the man’s family while another U.S. businessman insulted his Thai counterparts when he tried to talk about business before lunch.

Landers, who runs a global consulting company, says it can be intimidating to try and figure out every rule and nuance of different cultures – even those within the U.S. That’s why he says it’s easier to challenge your own assumptions about proper behavior, and then learn to look for signs on how to adapt quickly to avoid offending others. Such a tactic, he says, is critical if businesses want to remain competitive and not get caught up in cultural faux pas.

It’s also important to understand that cultural differences aren’t something that can only be seen from the outside – cultural neuroscience shows that culture physically molds our brains. People from different cultures actually use different parts of their brains when they’re doing things like listening to music, looking at someone’s face or crunching numbers, Landers says.

That’s why it may seem so challenging for workers from different cultures to work together, finding offense in the way others greet them, the emails they send or even the way they give presentations. But Landers says that for teams, the first step is understanding how they automatically default to their own cultural norms and how they can change that reaction so that they are more open and results-oriented.

A simple example may be when a New York employee emails a colleague in Atlanta first thing in the morning. The email is direct: “Send me that report by noon, and make sure it’s accurate.”

The employee in Atlanta sees this curt email as quite rude, and fires off a passive-aggressive response. Before long, there’s hostility brewing between the two workers and that lack of cultural understanding can lead to lost efficiency.

Such situations can be resolved, Landers explains, if the Atlanta employee simply takes a moment and recognizes that the New York worker is simply making a request in a very direct way – something that is a cultural norm for that East Coast employee. He says anyone in such a situation needs to do an ROI:

  • Recognize your own cultural programming. The Atlanta employee needs to understand that she sees directness – as exhibited by the New York colleague – as insulting.
  • Open your mind to whether it’s really this person’s intention to be rude. Are there other ways of perceiving or approaching the situation?
  • Identify your response to optimize results. For example, think about whether this is just this person’s style, and no personal offense is intended.

Landers also suggests that teams don’t have to learn every preference of another culture, but instead learn to look for cues on how best to proceed. Such adjustments, he says, can lead to smoother collaborations and more profitable business outcomes.

Among his suggestions for how teams with different cultures can better work together:

  • Determine whether it’s “me” or “we.” Many of those in Western cultures expect to get recognition when they come up with an idea and feel disrespected or cheated if someone else tries to take the credit. But in “we” cultures, the focus is on giving the team, or even your boss, credit for your work. If someone is in a “we” culture, then you need to give the person time to check with others before providing an answer in a meeting. On the flip side, the “me” culture employees will get to tasks quickly and don’t feel slighted if no one lingers to chat after a meeting.
  • Tune in to nuances. Those who are more “direct” communicators will strive verbally to express themselves clearly and expect the same from others. They immediately address the task at hand and minimize the time they spend talking about irrelevant topics. But an “indirect” communicator relies heavily on nonverbal cues like silent pauses and gestures to convey meanings, and assume others will do the same. They like to take the time to talk about other topics to cultivate a relationship before moving onto discussing tasks to be completed. The clashes between the two cultures can become especially tense when providing feedback. Direct communicators need to learn to be more patient with indirect communicators and know that answers such as “hmmm” or even smiling instead of responding is a way of saying “no.” Indirect communicators need to accept it’s OK to just say “no” and should not be offended by it.
  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues. One of the most troublesome cross-cultural questions is whether to look at someone directly. In some cultures, it can be a sign of respect and confidence. In others, it’s seen as disrespectful or threatening. Even the firmness of a handshake can be fraught with problems, depending on the culture. “I think one of the best things you can do is ‘mirroring’ the other person,” Landers says. “If the person doesn’t shake your hand firmly, then you shouldn’t go in for a strong grasp. Or, if the person looks directly in your eye and smiles, do the same.” Landers says that your greeting doesn’t have to be “perfect” but more an effort on your part to recognize what the other person needs, such as a nod instead of a handshake.
  • Understand the concept of time. Different cultures view time differently. The “laters” see time as being more flexible and think it’s OK to be a few minutes late. The “nows” are less flexible about time and are likely to be more stressed out when things don’t run on time. To avoid conflict, the “nows” need to let “laters” know when deadlines really cannot be adjusted, but also be willing to wait longer for them to show up at meetings. The “laters” need to understand that arriving even a few minutes late is seen as disrespectful, and need to communicate as soon as possible if deadlines can’t be met.
  • Consider the formality. In some cultures, formality may be downplayed “as a way of purposefully disassociating from anything that smacks of social hierarchy,” Landers says. The difference often comes into play in emails when one colleague addresses another as “Bob” when Bob addresses the other person as “Mr. Jones.” Just as you use mirroring in face-to-face communications, Landers suggests you do the same in written messages.  It’s best to always begin and end with formal salutations until your counterpart becomes more informal – then you can do the same.  When eating or drinking, try to follow the lead of others when it comes to which utensils to use, how much to drink or even how little food to leave on your plate.


Landers adds that when someone has moved across various cultures while growing up, he may build relationships among various groups and never form full ownership in any. In these cases, try looking at the person’s core values to determine the best way to interact. For example, look at behaviors that the person encourages or appreciates, and those that are looked down upon. Are there patterns of certain behavior that appear repeatedly and in a variety of situations? That’s your cue for how to best interact, he says.

“To avoid a culture clash, you need to adjust your expectations and behaviors based on the values you uncover,” Landers says. “It’s important if you want to exert influence on this person.”



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