How to Stop a Cultural Collision in its Tracks

You’re leading a brand new team with members joining from different organizations and working in multiple locations, perhaps as a result of a merger, acquisition or new partnership. At first, conversations are respectful, but they soon devolve into uncomfortable exchanges that reflect mounting frustrations and distrust. You realize that the cultures of these organizations are worlds apart, despite the much-touted “business synergy” between them.

The only way team members will be enthusiastic about collaborating is to openly talk through the cultural differences, as well as their respective organizations’ values and beliefs. This will not be an easy conversation, and it won’t be a short one either, given the number of differences standing in the way.

Where do you start? Joining me is Nettie Nitzberg, Principal of West5 Consulting, a people and organization development company.  Our advice for team leaders who need to jumpstart new teams: Begin with a Team Charter, which acts as a roadmap by which team members can see where they’re headed and how they want to get there. For this article, we’re focusing on team communications (#4 in the Team Charter), since those differences often present the biggest and most challenging impediments for teams. (Download a complete Team Charter checklist here.)

Here are some questions to ask team members during your next team meeting to open the conversation and acknowledge the elephant in the room. Encourage examples and stories, to help the group understand what’s really behind their differences. This will pave the way for your team to create its own team charter that blends the best of both cultures.

Consider the following questions regarding team communications and coordination:

  • To what degree do we value open, clear communications? How will we demonstrate this?
  • What communication ground rules are especially important for the team to live by? For example, to what extent is punctuality important? What level of responsiveness should we expect of each other when it comes to responding to requests? How important is it that we all use the same applications for common tasks?
  • Under what circumstances do we use which form of communications, and why? For example, when is the team portal the best way to communicate, vs. real-time meetings, vs. group chats, IM, email, or phone?
  • What information needs to be shared? With whom?
  • What process will we use for sharing and accessing information? Does everyone on the team have equal access?
  • In what ways do we want to communicate important changes, inside and outside of our team? What methods of communication will we use? Is it important that everyone hear the news at the same time?
  • What do we hope to achieve during team meetings? What can real-time conversations help us do better than other forms of communication? How often will we meet, for how long, and at what time? Are meetings mandatory for everyone? Who sets the agenda?
  • How will we communicate between meetings? How often? In what ways?
  • How will we keep up to date on the team’s progress? How will we report progress and how often? How do we alert others that we’re in danger of missing an important deadline?
  • How accessible do team members need to be, and how do we signal our availability? For example, if a manager sends an email during a weekend or vacation, are we expected to reply? If a team member is logged into the system, is it reasonable to assume they will respond to a request?
  • How can we collaborate to create a team glossary so that everyone uses consistent terminology and a shared vocabulary? How do we determine which terms to use, considering our cultural differences?
  • How do we assign confidentiality to our communications? What kind of information can be shared with others? What restrictions are important to uphold?

When people from different organizational cultures form a new team, they don’t magically align. There are many trials and tribulations they must overcome to work together successfully. This takes a concerted effort, many candid conversations, and no small degree of compromise. By establishing a Team Charter up front, especially where differences are greatest, your new team will move out of the starting gate, together, far more quickly.


Team Charter Checklist

How to Preempt Team Conflict by Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux in Harvard Business Review, June 2016

Making Decisions That Stick – white paper by Nancy Settle-Murphy, Guided Insights

Related Communiques:

11 Expert Tips for Crossing the Cultural Chasm

Avoiding the High Cost of Ambiguous Decisions

Open Communication Key to Intergenerational Harmony

Services from Guided Insights:

Virtual Teams and Virtual Meetings

Facilitation Skills Training – customized workshops covering face-to-face and remote meeting facilitation

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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