When working globally, managers must understand different workplace cultures.

Understanding Cultures Is Key to Managing Global Teams

Jan 3, 2022

by Jean Thilmany

Engineering teams are going global, if they are not already. For success, managers must take cultural differences and expectations into consideration.

But that can be harder than it seems at first blush. Managers might not understand why a team member asks so many questions before getting started. But of course they would. Where they live, that’s how it’s done.

Most people have their own ideas about the best way to communicate and to build team relationships. All those ideas are based on culture, said Dean Foster. He’s the founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions, which consults with companies to aid cross-cultural communication.

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“If differences in the way we work and live are not understood and not managed, these are real minefields for people. Projects can fall apart,” Foster said.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated the move to virtual teams, the engineering industry already understood the value of global, connected groups. While the groups already have access a host of collaboration software, the technology doesn’t take the human who uses it out of the equation, said Tsedal Neeley, senior associate dean of faculty development and research strategy at the Harvard Business School. She’s also authored two books on global and remote work, The Language of Global Success (2017, Princeton University Press) and Remote Work Revolution (Harper Business, 2021).

When team members come from different countries and backgrounds and are working in different locations, “communication can rapidly deteriorate, misunderstanding can ensue, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust,” Neeley said.
 
“Even if they come from different backgrounds, they can arrive at a common understanding of what certain behaviors mean, and they feel close and congenial, which fosters good teamwork,” she added.
 

The Same but Not the Same

 
Managers should know that cultural differences don’t always show themselves in the big, obvious ways they might expect, Foster said.
 
For instance, Americans first define their desired end result. Next, they figure out how to “work backward” to get to that end, Foster said. They experiment and try different things before submitting a final project.
 
They don’t take time to justify an experiment or explain why it might work, he added. On the other hand, “The French need the details in place first to justify their conclusion,” he noted.

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A French team member might ask an American counterpart questions like, “How do we avoid this, what if such-and-such happens?’” Foster said. “The American feels pummeled and like they’re being asked about minutia.”
 
Other differences are more stark.
 
A Chinese engineer will stay on the job until a deadline is met, even if that means working straight through the night or missing an important family event. In South American countries, on the other hand, employees are used to taking off work for all kinds of family events such as weddings and parties.
 
Knowing that, a manager needs to set realistic deadlines that will allow their Chinese counterparts can get some sleep and their Mexican co-workers to maintain extended-family ties, Foster sasaid.
 

Learned Differences

 
You can’t ignore cultural differences, so you have to know what to do about them. You have to have a strategy for managing them. Foster said most difficulties happen due to different communication style, including conflict management.
 
You can best develop global management skills through training and learning, including interactive training and coaching. A number of training programs exist, whether via software or in person, to help managers understand various cultural differences and how best to provide for them.
 
Some training is immersive. Neeley’s team, for example, offers global simulation software that teaches students about the difficulties in cross-cultural communication and managing global teams. As their virtual team struggles to collaborate, students experience first-hand how communication challenges can interfere with work goals, Neeley said.

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Before they begin a project, mangers should determine the degree to which cultural divides may happen as the project moves forward. How will they appear? Will the differences be significant or minimal? Where will they appear and cause friction?
 
Bear in mind that your culture and another’s aren’t the only ones on the plate. You may have team members from China and from Germany, for example. You then have to understand and be aware of different working styles between those two countries.
 
Managing cultural differences may sound overwhelming, but remember you’re all working together toward a common goal.
 
Despite what we hear about workforce globalization, cultural differences aren’t going away, Foster said. The best leaders know they must learn about those differences and understand how to best manage them. The stakes are high.
 
“Cultural ignorance is will ultimately trip you up,” Foster said. “Unless you don’t let it.”
 
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer in Saint Paul, Minn.
 

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