Enabling cross cultural teams to perform well can be tricky when constrained by time and stakeholder expectations of high performance, but the results are worth the effort.

In the hustle of today’s business urgencies and emergencies, cross-organizational and cross-national (international) teams are called upon to solve complex, multi-discipline challenges. Rarely are these teams given sufficient time to establish common values before they’re launched into critically urgent and constrained projects. Just the opposite seems to be the norm.

Sponsors assume team members assigned to their projects have common values and a common language for expressing them, even when team members aren’t well spoken in the predominant language of the team. I’m not just talking about foreign languages either. Technical languages can be as difficult for those outside a specialized field as French, English, or German can be for anyone speaking them as a second language. Every field of study assigns concise definitions to the common words used to describe conditions, objects and outcomes for that field. The result is a culture of specialists.

I once led a team of engineers and non-engineers on a complex project, that was started well inside of normal lead time. The team members represented a diverse mix of organizations, with specialized roles. While all of us spoke English, it took us a full day to realize that when the engineers said, “standards,” meaning a codified system of rules, the non-engineers heard “standards” and interpreted it to mean commonly used physical parts (the nuts and bolts).

So what to do. Here’s my advice:

  • Recognize that teams are micro-communities, bound together by common purpose, values and behaviors. How well they execute and produce desired outputs and artifacts depends heavily on how well they communicate with each other and how well the leader can inspire members to look past their differences outside of the team and commit to their common purpose for being a team.
  • While facilitating interactions, make sure communications are clear. Encourage and empower team members to clarify statements or questions until they understand or are understood.
  • Trust your team members and be consistent, dependable and reliable in all your interactions, which lays the foundation for the team to trust you.
  • Listen to the team — and listen to yourself. While that latter bit may sound odd, try it the next time you’re talking to a team member. Listen to what you are saying – and know that the person listening only hears the words coming out of your mouth and none of the thoughts in your head.
  • Lead by example. As the team leader, your behaviors will be emulated by team members.
  • Intervene appropriately and discretely to external situations on the team’s behalf. Do the same when necessary on situations between team members or with team members.
  • Celebrate success often. This sounds easier than it is. Success becomes clouded by judgement very easily. Take the win and run!

These actions all contribute to developing a positive and supportive space for the team to operate in and re-enforce what you value as the team leader. The team itself, however, will grow through “storming, norming, forming and performing” as team members. That includes you. Like the tribe it is, the team will create and adhere to its internal cultural norms and values to survive and thrive.

You can either view your cross-cultural teams as suffering from a lack of common values, or you can see the potential to use diversity to create a powerful lever for achieving complex objectives.

Do you have your own experiences with cross-cultural teams? Share what you’ve learned with the MPUG community in the comments below.

A version of this article originally appeared on Rick Thomas’ blog, “The Eclectic Project Manager.”

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