With today’s increasingly global marketplace, knowing how to lead a cross-cultural team should be part of every manager's key skill set.

“Globalisation transforms the way we work.”

“While leaders have always had to understand personality differences and manage how people interact with one another, as globalisation transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers and colleagues around the world,” writes Erin Meyer, Senior Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.

5 Tips on Leading Cross-Cultural Teams
5 Tips on Leading Cross-Cultural Teams

Here are five tips to enrich cross-cultural working relationships:


1. Be flexible.

Different cultures prioritise either flexibility or a linear time construct on the road to execution. To better serve a cross-cultural team, it is best to assess how flexible the various cultures on the team might be to timing schedules. Understanding these key differences can help avoid team frustrations.

2. Give everyone a voice.

It might be easy to get everyone talking when the whole team is present and accounted for in a single conference room. This becomes more of a challenge when attempting to gain consensus around the globe through calls or video conferences. If there are team members stationed across separate locations, be sure to send the agenda well in advance and actively solicit that remote team for their thoughts, updates and opinions.

3. Train everyone in the corporate norms.

The amount of respect we show to authority is deeply rooted in the culture we are raised in,” Meyer writes. If active debate is a part of the company’s process in team meetings, the staff should be trained and equipped to partake in these efforts. When cultural norms in some locations or among certain nationalities discourage this type of discussion, managers should take extra care to explain the importance of this process.

4. Encourage small talk.

When a mix of cultures is trying to come together in a single office, managers should make every effort to create opportunities for casual interactions. Happy hours, lunch-and-learn events and even birthday parties for employees can help to bond the team.

“It may even mean learning to laugh at yourself.”

5. Stop and listen.

A manager should pause before acting and attempt to gain a better understanding of why certain locations operate differently. He or she may have no concept of the local cultures, considerations and needs that impact other offices. It would be wise to ask questions and learn as much as possible before attempting to force changes.

You need to develop the flexibility to manage up and down the cultural scale,” Meyer explains. “Often this means going back to square one. It means watching what makes local leaders successful. It means explaining your style frequently. It may even mean learning to laugh at yourself. But ultimately it means learning to lead in different ways in order to motivate and mobilise groups who follow in different ways from the folks back home.”

Bottom line

Managing cross-cultural teams is going to be an increasingly important skill in the global marketplace. Developing sensitivity to local customs and priorities can help managers to better unite their teams no matter how many miles are between them. Once effectively managed, cross-cultural teams can bring unparalleled innovation and unique perspectives to new problems and can be far more effective than any one team with a homogenous group of employees.

Managing Cross-Cultural Teams is available as a Key Management Challenge on INSEAD's Global Executive MBA Programme.