Head Off Problems Up Front, Before Cultural Differences Can Get in the Way

What are the toughest challenges you absolutely need to conquer when it comes to leading global teams?

That’s what I asked a few of my clients, all seasoned leaders of cross-cultural teams, as I sat down to create scripts for a series of training vignettes I was about to deliver for a national training firm.

While I could have simply drawn from my own experiences working with global team leaders, I wanted to learn from people doing the real work right now. I’m glad I did, because I learned a lot by going through this process. For example, I learned that writing video scripts vs. writing blogs and articles requires very different skills and a surprising amount of time. I also realized that despite advances in technology that make virtual collaboration easier, global leaders still grapple with issues that have confounded global team leaders for decades.

For this issue of Communique, I offer tips to help address some of my clients’ most frequently – recurring challenges which became the basis for my training videos.

  • It feels awkward and uncomfortable discussing cultural differences. Can’t we just accept that we’re all really pretty much the same and move on? Well you could, but that would be both dangerous and disingenuous. If the team leader downplays cultural differences that are getting in the way of effective collaboration, team members must navigate through these differences on their own. Much better for the team leader to set aside sufficient time to discuss how cultural differences affect work, so you can all agree how the team can work through them.

Start by observing how you believe some of the cultural differences are affecting the work of the team, and then encourage people to explain how their cultures affect their approach to work. Finally, help the team agree on a compromise that’s acceptable for all. Example: “Some of you offer feedback on team calls, and others send me private emails later. As a result, team members often don’t know what others are thinking, which may mean that decisions are made with incomplete or incorrect information. By understanding cultural differences, we’ll be able to agree on a feedback process that works for everyone. Who’d like to start?”

  • It’s a big task to learn about the cultures represented on my team. What’s the easiest way? Starting with the predominant cultures on your team, seek to understand how cultural differences affect some of the key aspects of successful collaboration. Examples: How decisions are made, information shared, feedback given, and conflicts resolved.

You can find hundreds of books, blogs and articles online to get you started. By using a well- chosen key term search (e.g. “Giving feedback in Germany” or “Decision Making AND Japan”), you can find what you’re looking for surprisingly fast and much of it is there for the taking. Another idea: Find a “culture coach” who is intimately familiar with the other culture, and meet periodically to share your observations and get your questions answered. Watching films made by people of that country, or reading historical novels placed there, can shed light on values and beliefs that may be otherwise hard to glean.

  • Our team constantly trips over miscommunications, a major source of frustration. How can we minimize them? First, learn which English words should be avoided, either because they are vague (such as “get” and “do”) or confusing (complex words or idioms). Watch out for “false friends,” similar-looking words that actually mean very different things in English and another language. For example, a French colleague who seems to be “demanding” a response is in fact simply requesting one, since the French demande means to make a request.

Next, make it possible for team members to communicate both in writing and by speaking during team meetings, since some feel more confident expressing themselves better in one way than the other. Likewise, some comprehend another language more successfully by reading it vs. hearing it. Allow extra time for paraphrasing during team meetings to ensure shared understanding, since many will be reluctant to admit they’re having trouble following the conversation. Finally, ask your team for periodic feedback so you can improve your communications to the team, and you can return the favor.

  • My leadership style seems to be successful in the U.S., but it doesn’t seem to translate well to other cultures. I sense I may be losing my credibility. Your observation is probably right: If you don’t modify your leadership style to accommodate cultural differences, you may be in for rough ride. In fact, the very same attributes associated with successful leadership in one culture may be perceived as weaknesses in another.

Take the time to understand how different cultures view leadership in these key areas: giving and getting feedback, intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation, rewards and recognition, importance of hierarchy, and desired level of autonomy, for starters. Reach out to your “culture coach” if you have one, or solicit candid feedback from team members, either 1:1 or as a team. While you shouldn’t feel compelled to adopt behaviors that don’t feel right for you, by demonstrating a willingness to adapt your leadership style to the local culture, you can meet your team halfway.

Having candid discussions about cultural differences can feel incredibly awkward, regardless of the venue. People may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or asking a question that may be seen as offensive. Still, it’s a conversation that global team leaders really should initiate as early as possible, ideally when a new team is forming. Cultural differences will affect collaboration one way or another, so it’s best to have team members familiarize themselves with each other’s’ cultures right up front, so they can decide how they want to work together moving ahead.



Nancy’s white paper – Improving your personal effectiveness with international audiencesdownloadable PDF

Short list of tips for navigating across cultures – downloadable PDF, which is excerpt from my 122 Essential Tips for Leading Amazingly Product Virtual Teams tip guide, available for ordering on my site

The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, a book I have found indispensable for my work

Speaking of India by Craig Storti, a gem of a book for Western managers and individuals working with their Indian Counterparts


Past Communiques:

How to Stop A Cultural Collision in its Tracks

Building Trust Calls for Different Approaches in Different Cultures

The Impossibility of Designing a Perfect Virtual Meeting in a Multicultural World

Guidelines for Great Global Team Meetings


Related Services:

Customized cross-cultural communications training and coaching from Guided Insights

Facilitation skills training, customized for the needs of each unique global working team

Customized training and coaching in virtual team leadership and designing and leading engaging virtual meetings

Wondering how I can help?

Let’s schedule a 30-minute meeting so we can explore how to work together to address your most pressing challenges.

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