Navigating Through Invisible Cultural Tripwires

It can be really awkward to candidly discuss cultural differences when your colleagues work across the hall. But when colleagues work across the continent or on the other side of the world, these conversations becomes exponentially harder. Yet, by missing the opportunity to openly explore how cultural differences affect its ability to collaborate, a team may become mired in cultural misunderstandings and handcuffed by invalid assumptions.

Some aspects of teamwork tend to suffer more due to cultural differences that are ignored or dismissed. In this edition, I highlight some of those aspects which, if successfully addressed, can catapult a global virtual team forward surprisingly fast, once they get through the tough but necessary conversations.

  • Decision-making: Some cultures (notably us Americans!) are known to value speed above all when it comes to making decisions, even if it means they’re made with incomplete information and insufficient buy-in. The unfortunate result: Decisions often must be revisited and recast, leading to costly rework. Other cultures, Japan for example, tend to be more holistic in their thinking, requiring considerable time to assess the rationale and impact of decisions, methodically seeking buy-in from a variety of stakeholders. Decisions may take longer, but implementation comes faster. When you’re part of a virtual team, it’s important to articulate operating principles about how this team will make decisions, including timing, criteria, process, approvers, input required, communication of decisions, etc. Different types of decisions might require different principles. Be prepared to engage in some spirited debates as you get to common ground.
  • Information-sharing: Some cultures share and request information freely, up, down and across the organization, without regard to hierarchy. If they need information to get their jobs done, why stand on ceremony if it means an avoidable delay? Here, open sharing is the norm. Other cultures tend to parcel out information on a need-to-know basis. Information is compartmentalized and funneled along functional or organizational lines. Because same-time conversations are rare for most virtual teams, members need explicit agreement about how information will be shared. For example, what kind of information will be posted on the team’s SharePoint portal versus sending via email? Who has access? To create this kind of “information architecture,” team members must spell out for each other what information they most need, at what point, to get their work done.
  • Level of participation: Formal cultures that place value on hierarchy and seniority may not be as willing to assess an idea in front of others, especially if a senior manager is present. Team members may tend to wait until spoken to, and even then, may not offer any contradictory or critical views. Other cultures may enjoy a lively debate and in fact relish the idea of proffering opinions to anyone who will listen, without fear of any negative repercussions. Team leaders need to be sensitive to these dynamics and carefully plan their meetings to accommodate differences. For example, if people of different seniority levels are on a call, make sure that junior people have a comfortable way to participate, such as by providing a web meeting tool that allows for anonymity. Also consider how you’ll coax quiet participants to speak. Some respond well to being called on, while others resent the attention. Find ways to encourage lively participation from everyone, even if it means providing different tools, at different times.
  • Motivation and rewards: Some cultures don’t seek out or expect recognition or rewards, and are inherently gratified by simply doing their jobs well. Other cultures, however, often expect some type of reward, monetary or otherwise, for meeting their goals. In addition, some cultures tend to value individual recognition, while for other cultures, it’s the team effort that people like to see rewarded. When considering how best to motivate, reward or recognize a cross-cultural team (or its individual members), realize that you need not always have a one-size-fits-all kind of reward or recognition that works equally well for everyone. Also pay attention to local laws and norms, especially when deciding upon any type of monetary reward.
  • Punctuality and deadlines: Everyone’s schedule is jam-packed, with people on back-to-back calls throughout the day (nights, too!). That’s why it’s especially important to establish a team culture that values punctuality for virtual meetings, even when a member’s cultural predisposition is to show up “whenever.” Set ground rules about punctuality and stick to them (e.g., “Latecomers catch up on what they missed afterwards.”) Likewise, some cultures want precise deadlines and hold these sacrosanct, while others see deadlines as a goal, which can be flexed depending on the circumstances. “Status reports due next week” may mean Monday at 9 AM CET to some and Friday at “end of day” EDT to others. Make sure everyone agrees when important deliverables are due, making clear the impact of slipped deadlines. If some deadlines matter more than others, say so.
  • Policies and procedures: Some cultures like to tackle one task at a time, completing one before moving onto the next. Logical, sequential, well-defined processes are necessary conditions of work. Other cultures regard a frenetic work environment and frequent interruptions as vital and even welcome. Relationships come before processes, and distractions offer unplanned opportunities to learn. For a virtual team, acknowledging these differences and deciding how to address them as a team is crucial. For example, some may turn off email a few hours a day to maintain focus, while others like to send IMs whenever the mood strikes, and get frustrated when they don’t get an instant reply.
  • Work/life balance: Extended vacation times for some team members may be resented by those who have to pick up the slack, especially during crunch times. In general, Americans tend to have far less vacation time than their European counterparts, and are more likely to work through weekends or holidays if that’s what the project takes. Before ill will can fester due to this perceived inequality, discuss principles and values regarding work/life balance, including what’s acceptable to ask and what’s out of bounds. Discuss how the negative effects of prolonged absences can be mitigated. Make sure that everyone has a world calendar so everyone can plan around local holidays like the 4th of July in the US, New Year’s week in China or Bastille Day in France.

When working as a virtual team, cultural barriers tend to get magnified. We often revert to viewing others from our own cultural lens and often see other cultures as a “not-quite-right” version of our own. Be actively curious about how cultural differences are affecting your team in both positive and negative ways. Learning about other cultures is only half the equation. Find ways to learn how your culture is perceived by other cultures. When in doubt, enlist a “buddy” from another culture with whom you can check assumptions, get feedback and ask for advice as you find your way along.


Learn more about our customized cross-cultural training workshops, which can be delivered onsite, virtually, or a combination of ways.

Need to communicate frequently with colleagues from other countries? Read our white paper: Tips for Communicating Effectively to and with International Audiences.

To find out how one complex global IT project team successfully surfaced and addressed cultural differences after some serious missteps, read our three-part white paper, starting with Collaborating Across Cultures: Part 1.

Also see our related ezines: No Shortcuts to Real Cultural Assimilation, Guidelines for Great Global Team Meetings and Mobilize Global Teams by Avoiding 8 Common Landmines.

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