How to Build Trust on your Cross-Cultural Team

Perhaps the most important characteristic of a high-functioning team is trust. Team members must be able to trust each other in order for work to get completed; they must be committed and dedicated to the welfare of the group above their own individual needs.

For any type of team, trust is a challenging thing to create and maintain, but when it comes to a cross-cultural team, trust can be especially difficult to achieve for a variety of reasons.

Today, we will explore some of these reasons so that your team can be on its way to developing a solid bond that will propel their work forward.

Let us look at the following:

Communication styles vary from culture-to-culture so too, is the extent to which people socialize and get down work at the start of each meeting. There are differences around time, giving feedback, when and how to speak up and disagreeing, especially disagreeing publicly.

Friction is bound to happen due to perceptions of ethnocentrism, with some team members feeling ignored or not taken seriously.

So how can leaders of a cross-cultural team leverage the differences without falling prey to its challenges? In my experience in working with global teams there are several steps a team leader can do to help their team members develop a bond of trust that will lead to success of the overall project.

  1. Structure the team for success. Make sure your cross-cultural team has a clear and compelling direction and that your members have access to information and the appropriate resources they need to successfully carry out their mission. Make sure senior leaders of the company and/or stakeholders are on board with the purpose and mission of your global team and that your team knows they have support from upper management and company senior leaders. Given the built-in challenges your global team faces to begin with, it is essential to make sure your team is staffed with as many curious, flexible, thoughtful and emotionally stable members as possible.
  2. Mission. Speaking of mission, make sure your team has a clear, easy to understand mission that they must be able to individually and jointly recite as a team. This rah, rah moment must be had so the team feels bonded from the start of all their meetings.
  3. Understand the cross-cultural makeup of your team. You, as a team leader must be able to understand the different cultures, the language differences and how language is used in the various cultures of your team members. For example, if your team is made up of a few Germans and some Koreans, you might guess that feedback will be a cultural trip-wire. Germans are comfortable giving direct, uncensored feedback, where as the reverse is common in Korea unless the conversation is between a senior member and a junior colleague. Be aware of these sorts of communication patterns, they can help you dampen tension and resolve matters effectively.
  4. Understand your team’s individual personalities. Just because a team member is from a certain culture, does not mean they will always behave with the norms of that culture. What if they were born in a foreign country, but studied in the USA or they lived and worked in Europe, they may have a blended cultural sense of working that may not always fit the cultural style of their birth place.
  5. Stick to clear norms. Global team members are going to bring a wide variety of work styles and personal preferences to the table. The team leader must establish some ground norms of behavior that everyone sticks to – no matter what the team’s personal styles are. No leader should impose their own personal style, but they could take into account what will work best for the team as a whole, and incorporate practices from each of the different cultures. For example, if you normally assign individual responsibilities but some team members prefer to work in small groups, you could assign a complex task to small groups.
  6. Find ways to build personal bonds. One of the most powerful ways of easing conflict is to allow your team members to build personal connections. Naturally, different cultures have different ways of building relationships. Given these differences you may not be able to develop deep connections, but you can certainly help foster rapport and individual connections. Perhaps you discover that someone from one culture enjoys photography, or that two of your members have children who play soccer, you as the leader can make a connection for those two individuals by opening up the conversations needed for them to take things to the next level. As a team leader it is your job to make these connections between your team members. Organize social events when your team is together and working face-to-face, pair quieter team members with more outspoken members, facilitate introductions between members who you think may get along well.
  7. Address conflict immediately. In any team conflict will arise, but for a cross-cultural team conflict creates tension that escalates quickly. As a leader, you must be able to understand the cultural perspectives and ways in which conflict plays out between members of different backgrounds. Building the bridge between parties who are in conflict requires an understanding of direct and in-direct communication styles as well as a readiness to have open group discussions about the conflict or know when to not discuss it openly, but rather in private with certain members who are in conflict. Everything depends on the members involved and the situation at hand.

Trust is the glue that makes global teams function well, but it doesn’t happen overnight. A team composed of culturally diverse members requires motivation to make things work. Applying some of the tips mentioned above will place you and your team in a better position to leverage benefits of diversity while minimizing its challenges.

I end this piece with the following: “You are a foreigner everywhere, except in your own culture”. Candida Marques – Global Arrival © 2018.


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