July 2018, Volume 2, Issue 6

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.

A Cross-Cultural Conversation

Cultural insensitivity is expensive. Anyone who conducts business overseas or would like to expand into international markets needs to be aware of how people from other cultures think and behave. "Selling is not selling" worldwide. Growth is not the same from culture-to-culture.

See if you can detect the cultural clash in the following conversation:


MS. CARTER: Nice to see you, Mr. Ken. How's everything going?

MR. KEN: Very well, thank you. Did you hear that Mr. Chu has been promoted?

MS. CARTER: Yes. Please offer him my congratulations.

MR. KEN: I will.

MS. CARTER: So. What can I do for you?

MR. KEN: We'll need to make a few changes to the contract.

MS. CARTER: Changes? The contract is already signed.

MR. KEN: Yes, we're very happy to be working with you and look forward to a long fruitful relationship.

MS. CARTER: Yes, we're very pleased too.

MR. KEN: Of course, now for the changes.

MS. CARTER: I'm not sure I understand. Has something happened since we last reached our agreement?

Can you detect the subtle different expectations and understandings in the above conversation? For an explanation, read on:

For Americans the foundation of business is a signed contract. The contract spells out all the mutually agreed-upon details of the relationship. It keeps everything running and impersonal. People may come and go, but the contract remains, the details in the contract is the essence of the relationship.

In some cultures, the foundation of business is building and sustaining rapport and trust, the personal relationship that is established between two parties during meetings and business negotiations is the only thing that matters, the details of a contract are always subject to change and move as the relationship progresses.

A signed contract in many cultures is only a formality, a symbol of the relationship, not the essence of the connection. In addition, a contract is bound to change because of changed circumstances. If the relationship is sound, such changes won't matter, and both parties make changes to keep the relationships moving forward.

As seen in the discussion, Ms. Carter misses the point about Mr. Chu's promotion and takes the American position that a deal is a deal; it's all in writing, done and said and must be followed.

Mr. Ken maintains, that some changes have occurred that require the contract be altered. For him they are trusted friends, why should it matter that he's requesting a few changes here and there? As long as there is trust, as long as both parties are committed, as long as they've agreed to a long-term relationship, a few changes in the contract will not matter in the scope of things.

The American assumption is that the role of external events can be limited, in this instance by the power of the contract. It is not that the American is not willing to make changes, but the changes must warrant a very good reason.

I end this piece with the following: "Understand the different ways in which business is conducted when working across cultures, it will help you to keep things running smoothly with trust, respect and solid relationships." Candida Marques – Global Arrival © 2018.

Quick Tips for Americans Working with Foreigners

  • Some cultures rely on tradition. Listen and be patient, it may save you from re-inventing the wheel and may actually speed things up for you in the long run.
  • Worry and concern is not a bad thing; it only means your counterpart works carefully. It doesn't mean they are timid or slow to learn, in some jobs being careful and detailed is needed. This is why you must know your people and how to position them within your organization.
  • Some people from other cultures will need thorough information. It doesn't mean they are dense, just that they need background information to grasp different concepts. They will trust you if you add in some background information or explain things a bit more carefully to them.
  • Creativity manifests itself in various ways, just because a person doesn't seek change does not mean they are not creative or innovative.

Rule of thumb: "Know your people; understand what they need and adjust your attitude and behavior to help them feel confident and effective on the job." Candida Marques – Global Arrival © 2018.

Reach out to Candida at: 908-625-2267, www.globalarrival.com, [email protected] so that Global Arrival can help you and your organization lead effectively in foreign cultures.

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