Cross-cultural communication: Beyond national stereotypes

flagWhy do most of us automatically assume that communication issues in cross-cultural teams stem from national characteristics? I suppose it’s easy to stereotype the Americans as ‘rush in and bang the table’ merchants or the Swedes as ‘laid-back reflectors’ and the Spanish as ‘fiery and emotional’. And of course national cultural differences do exist and have been noted in organisational contexts by authors such as Fons Trompenaars. But much of the time, thinking exclusively along national cultural lines is far too blunt – and often misses the point altogether.

In some recent consultancy work, I was asked to work with a global project team in a pharmaceutical multinational that had grown through acquisition. The team was made up of people working remotely from different outposts around the world. “The team isn’t delivering,” the project director said. “We think it’s a culture issue. There are Americans, Spanish and Scandinavians; they don’t seem to understand each other’s ways of doing things.”

In one way, he was right; the team wasn’t delivering because members didn’t understand each other’s cultures. But it wasn’t because of national characteristics – it was subtler than that.

Team culture clash

The team came from different sites with their own legacy cultures and, although there was the usual set of common company values on the wall, there wasn’t a homogeneous company culture. At the team level, complex matrix management constraints were causing a mismatch of expectations and assumptions about reporting frequency, levels of autonomy and degrees of openness and transparency. These had nothing to do with team members’ nationalities.

In the US site, micro-management was the norm and every small detail was scrutinised as a project went along. Those on the site in Sweden were used to having an objective and reporting back only when and if there was an issue. The Spanish unit was somewhere in the middle.

Performance had stalled because the project leader, who happened to be American, wasn’t getting the ‘timely’ information he needed to satisfy his manager and felt he was being deliberately undermined. The Swedish contingent were feeling resentful and undervalued by his apparently ‘untrusting’ demands and the team in Spain were caught between conflicting demands, unhappy, confused and complaining. Stereotypes reinforced.

The problems had arisen because, while the team had spent a huge amount of time specifying what they needed to do at team start-up, they had not considered how they needed to work together. The work we did to get to the root of the problem and sort out the communication issues had nothing to do with building understanding of national characteristics. Instead, it was about working through site-specific culture differences and building a common understanding and new ways of working.

Communication lessons for cross-cultural teams

If you’re struggling to get your cross-cultural team to perform, here are five lessons we learned from this and other work like it:

  1. Build the how into team induction.
  2. Make regular checks of emotional as well as physical performance.
  3. At the start of the project, make time to meet face to face to find out what you have in common with each other – and what the differences are. It may cost in travel but not to do so is a false economy.
  4. Establish a common team purpose and culture that can work across, and is aligned with, individual site/parent company cultures.
  5. Understand the ‘must haves’ to satisfy reporting lines for all team members.

The work described in this blog was delivered by Axiom Communications, an organisation I work with as an associate executive coach and consultant. A version of this post first appeared on the Axiom website.