Leading Cross-Cultural Teams
“All things are difficult before they are easy” (Chinese Proverb)
Working overseas as a diplomat has been a joy and a privilege. It has also been fraught with pitfalls. Arriving in an unfamiliar country, expected to lead a team of mixed nationalities, cultures and backgrounds. What could possibly go wrong? Well…a lot.
But, as the Chinese say, “Falling into a ditch makes you wiser”. So, to celebrate my 20th anniversary of working internationally, I thought I’d share my top tips on leading cross-cultural teams. Many learnt the hard way!
For example…Not long after starting work in China, I noticed that one of my team was sleeping at his desk. Pretty shocked by this apparent lack of commitment, I woke him and rather sternly explained that at the British Consulate, we did not sleep in the office. Over the next few days I noticed that several colleagues had small pillows by their computers. Turns out that having a nap at lunchtime is very much part the culture in South China, indeed, a right that is enshrined into many employment contracts here. Eating humble pie, I apologised, but sadly I have never seen him sleep in the office since.
So, what have I learnt?
1. Do your homework
When working with cross-cultural teams, take some time to research the cultures and histories. Are there religious or cultural festivals that you need to respect? I have more than once upset all my local staff by not letting them leave early the evening before a festival I didn’t know existed, but won many friends by eating mooncakes at Mid-Autumn Festival.
2. Avoid stereotyping
Whilst generalisations can be a helpful starting point, each country has a range of cultures and approaches. Take time to reflect on and test out your expectations. Remember that everyone is an individual. Spend time with new colleagues to really get to know what makes them tick.
3. Get a cultural mentor
Having someone to help you navigate through the potential pitfalls can be incredibly valuable. For me, this has often been my language teachers, who have - for example - explained kindly that exposing one’s shoulders is not common here in China, whereas a short skirt is not such an issue.
4. Build a respectful, inclusive culture
Send clear messages about the importance of an office culture of respect. Make it clear that we should not discriminate against others, whilst giving people the tools and language to learn about other cultures in a sensitive way. For us, we have recently rolled out inclusion training which gave people a safe space to raise issues around cultural misunderstanding through respectful communication.
5. Encourage sharing
Encourage members of the team to share things about themselves that are important to them. Let them decide what they want to share rather than putting people on the spot to talk about an issue that could be very personal to them. Ask colleagues to present on something they are passionate about. Recent topics here range from local architecture to tea ceremonies. Each session offered fascinating insights into day-to-day life in China.
6. Ensure good feedback mechanisms
Local staff associations can be invaluable at collecting feedback and then offering it up in an anonymised format. This is particularly important where the concept of challenging senior leaders is counter-cultural, as in China, where a boss being shown to be wrong is seen as a loss of face for all involved. For us, during the height of the pandemic, local staff were reluctant to challenge the decisions of senior leaders, however they clearly had the best on-the-ground insights. Mechanisms that invited collective feedback and challenge proved to be invaluable.
7. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations
If behaviour does not align to your organisational standards, this needs to be addressed. You should not excuse poor behaviour as a cultural misunderstanding. Raising concerns quickly has generally worked for us to address actions that are upsetting someone. At other times it has helped us to notice more promptly that there is a more serious issue. Sometimes you might just need to explain why it is not ok to ask to touch someone’s hair. At other times you might need to investigate complaints of discrimination more formally.
8. Use clear language
Working with a range of nationalities often means a range of native languages. Whilst the level of English amongst my current team is very good, avoiding idiomatic English is important. While you might think you are being perfectly clear asking someone if they are ‘under the weather’, this might not mean much to those for whom English is a second language. We all need to tread carefully in other languages. In Chinese, the context or intonation used means I sometimes find I’ve actually asked a completely unrelated question!
9. Be alert to potential sensitivities
In some cultures, discussing a person’s age is deeply insulting, but asking why someone has not yet had a child or lost weight is perfectly fine! I’ve worked in some offices where many discussions have focused on how much weight I have either gained or lost… Context and relationship is key here, balanced with an understanding of the cultural norms. Proceed with caution!
10. Enjoy it!
Working in a cross-cultural team is immensely rewarding. It will offer a richness of experiences that you would never have imagined. Whilst I’ll never embrace a love for consuming chicken feet, my experiences of other cultures have opened my eyes to new perspectives and new ideas. After all, “He who returns from a journey is not the same as he who left.” (Chinese proverb).
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