4 Common Disconnects on Multi-Cultural Teams


Working on multicultural teams you may have had moments of wondering what he or she just meant by that comment? Or why will he or she not make a key decision so an activity can move forward? Cultural perspectives and ways of life may be one of the reasons that could explain those incidents.

It is fun to meet people from other cultures and learn about their lives and experiences. And at first it may be interesting to learn how their cultures vary from your own, but once you work on a project together and it is remote working, including long hours and tight deadlines those differences can start to cause friction on the team. This can slow down progress and impact team morale. Being aware of the most common inter-cultural disconnects can prevent team members from blaming it on a person and instead enter into a discussion to unpack the root cause of a lack of action, lack of decision-making or the exact opposite – too many fast actions without thinking or making decisions without considering consequences.

4 Areas of misunderstanding that can impact inter-cultural teams

Some things are smart to do in order to ensure the team understands required project outcomes and approaches to use. Aspects would include clarifying the definition of done, outlining project phases and deadlines, assigning roles and responsibilities and having regular meetings to monitor and understand progress and resolve issues that are hindering progress or pose a risk.

Some aspects may need additional attention if your team consists of a few members from very different cultures.

1. Managing to deadlines

This relates to how important team members believe deadlines are. Some may see them as a guideline while others will suffer anxiety and will work longer hours to make sure the are met. In some cultures, there is a strong emphasis on being for example exactly on time for an appointment while in other cultures it may be okay to be a few minutes late for business meetings and perhaps even a few hours late for a social engagement.

Cross-cultural impact:

  • Make sure all team members understand the consequences, knock-on effects and penalties which may be triggered if the team missed deadlines. Monitor progress and have follow-up conversations if team members are falling behind to ensure they understand the importance of their activities being completed on-time.
  • Ensure team members understand the priorities they should place on various aspects of the work that needs to be done by the deadline. Ensure it is also clear exactly what “done” means. Do you expect quality checks to be done too or just a first draft of the outcome to be available? Should it be print-ready or just ready for an internal review or further discussions?

2. Clear Role Expectations

There are differences in cultures around the meaning of “in charge” or the Subject Matter Expert (SME). In some cultures, it is customary to take the word of such a person as a mandate to perform a specific task or action exactly according to what he/she said. In other cultures, SMEs and leaders are considered more “accessible”, and dialogue is welcomed when one does not agree with a requirement or task assigned by the one “in charge.” This difference can cause confusion on teams including many different cultures. To what degree can and should instructions be discussed and challenged vs accepted? Are those in expert roles or roles with authority prepared to deal with challenging discussions and comments – if the project team will operate in a culture of open discussions?

Cross-cultural impact:

  • Have a role discussion at the start of the project and include what would be great questions to ask each role and how interaction is expected to take place on the project to maximize positive team outcomes.
  • Be sure to have further discussions highlighting best-practices during the project and as new team members join, who may have missed the original discussions around the different project roles and how to best interact with them.

3. Conflict resolution

Conflict shows up differently in each person – some people speak up and go to the “max ” to be heard and understood while others take their thoughts, feelings and especially resentment underground and do not speak out. This means that conflict can be hard to resolve and to feel comfortable that all thoughts and concerns are on the table and discussed before decisions are made. Some cultures are more likely to speak up and make sure their opinions are voiced while others might patiently and politely wait to be asked for an opinion and speaking out of turn (from their perspective) may be seen as impolite or disrespectful. In some cultures open disagreements are best avoided to maintain a cordial/good relationship with others on the project.

Cross-cultural impact:

  • Use more than one channel to check in with team members and get feedback – ask in meetings, but also check in with individual team members between meetings to understand if there is any part of the path forward chosen which concerns them.
  • If any team members are especially aggressive in voicing opinions, perhaps a quiet word might help that person to still voice opinions, but possibly in a less forceful way to avoid antagonizing anyone from a culture where a forceful (overly enthusiastic ) communication style might cause discomfort.
  • Provide training in non-violent communication and voicing messages with a healthy balance between listening and advocating. Help team members to constantly improve in understanding each other’s styles to help communication and collaboration efforts on the project.
  • When a conflict does occur, address it in a culturally-sensitive way if the disconnect could be related to a cultural difference in perspective. The objective should be to solve and address project issues in a helpful way without causing negative impacts to collaboration on the project.

4. Navigating with many languages

We all know of situations where people from the same country with the same language find it hard to communicate successfully with understanding and openness. When a team consists of many different cultures, this can be so much more confusing and frustrating.

Cross-cultural impact:

  • Agree from the start of the project to follow a few guidelines such as: For the chosen project language, native speakers are to slow down and use simple ways to bring their points across. And native speakers of the main project language will be patient with non-native speakers trying to get their thoughts across. If there is a large language ability gap between the native-speakers and other team members consider some language classes to bridge the gap.
  • Consider asking presenters/speakers at planned meetings to send out specific agenda items and a summary paragraph of the issues to be raised and discussed at least a day before the meeting. That would help non-native speakers to prepare ensuring they understand the issues and are able to fully participate in the conversation at the meeting.
  • When there are significant differences in levels of language abilities on the team, meetings may take longer, and collaboration may also be a little harder especially in a virtual/remote environment. Be sure to take this into account when planning project timelines and deadlines.

Plan ahead to succeed

Knowing you may be starting up a project with a multi-cultural team, schedule team-building activities for team members early on. This will help them get to know each other as humans/people. Establishing trust early on, can avoid frustration turning into conflict and delays in reaching project team deadlines.

Create team opportunities to get to know more about each other’s cultures. This could bridge the gap in understanding each other’s perspectives and avoid labeling, misunderstandings, and internal team misalignments..

Set continuous learning as one of the core values of the team and live it, encourage it and keep bringing the team back to what can be learned from successes and failure as the project progresses. Having a curious and learning mindset is a great way to avoid major disconnects between team members as they will engage in inquiry and advocacy vs judgment and labelling as a default behavior.

Office Safety Booklet


I often come across HR Managers in smaller to mid-sized companies who have a few areas of responsibility outside of HR like for example Office Safety and Facilities. They are often expected to maintain a high level of compliance with constantly changing laws and this can become an unnerving task for some. The free resource that I am sharing today is a general Office Safety booklet. It covers several topics relating to the office environment to create more awareness among employees of the do’s and don’ts around staying safe in the office environment.

You can either print it double-sided from the pdf document and make it available to employees as a booklet or you can send them the electronic document to review if they have just joined the company. It is quite easy to turn the booklet into an orientation and discussion session if you want to use it in that way.

This booklet is not based on any certified course so it is not a replacement for anyone who needs to undergo a formal exam to be certified in some aspect of safety. It simply helps you, as the HR Manager who has to cover Office Safety, to communicate some basic safety aspects to employees and other visitors to your office who may be working there for a period of time.

This booklet could also form the basis for an annual office safety check. Depending on expectations from management or compliance requirements you may need to perform an office safety check once per year. Using this booklet you can easily create a list of items to check based on the various categories of topics covered. For example, you can check how many times an accident or incident happened or almost happened per year based on history. Or you can check how people are working or storing items in the working area – are you seeing tripping or falling hazards?

Let me know if you are getting stuck with the creation of a safety checklist from the booklet!

If your company has an office environment next to a manufacturing or production facility this booklet would not cover several topics that a facility like that would require. There are many more rules around production or manufacturing environments, which are not necessarily covered in this booklet. Examples include how to handle dangerous materials and wearing safety equipment for certain activities. I recommend that you contact an expert in safety for your industry to help you create the right training and awareness materials for an industrial application.

I believe this booklet offers a good start in getting safety principles communicated to office employees and I also recommend that you look for more ways to strengthen your office safety program.

Other considerations:

  • Make sure you can tell employees where to assemble outside during a fire drill and how they would recognize the alarm to trigger an evacuation. Also, make sure they know which routes to follow for an evacuation.
  • Ensure you have a First Aid box that is well-stocked to take care of small incidents and cuts. Check it on a regular basis to make sure you are not running out of anything and also that nothing in there is over the use-by date.
  • Is there someone in your office building where your office is located who offers safety assistance – for example, if an employee had a heart attack or a bad fall? If there is not, should someone from your office get that training?
  • Apart from reading a booklet on safety, how can you make sure that employees think safety first in every activity they consider? This would be even more important if your company has safety or employee well-being as a value or a priority.

Small and mid-sized companies often do not have large budgets for creating office safety awareness and it is my hope that this free resource helps you cover ground that would otherwise have been a tough additional action on your HR Manager to-do-list!

Starting right – new manager and team


new team leader

A new leader or manager has to quickly connect with the team and understand the objectives and issues around the team and their tasks if he or she wants to be effective in the shortest time possible. At times the team may know the person promoted to be the new leader or manager. The new leader or manager may also be hired from outside the company or someone who joined the team from a remote part of the organization where there had previously been very little to no interaction with team members. In all cases, the team members may have concerns and wonder how the new leader or manager will help the team and them as individuals succeed going forward.

The slides I am sharing can be used to facilitate a group session with the new leader/manager and the existing team. The focus of the session is to help them accelerate the connection and learning that needs to take place for the team to maintain momentum and reach their goals under new leadership. The session helps the team get to know the new leader/manager and voice their concerns. The new manager/leader also gets to know quickly what the team issues are and how the team feels about progress and possible team obstacles to success, which enables him/her to more accurately set the team’s priorities and focus areas for the next few months.

The resource includes some instructions for setting up the activities and also some timing estimates. The slides contain a basic ice breaker/check-in exercise at the start of the session. You could always change this activity for something that better fits with the group/team that you are working with, if needed.

For a simplified process of setting expectations with new leaders and/or new teams, you can download a file to help with that below.

Depending on how many issues the team has, the size of the team and how much they already know about the new leader/manager the entire session can take anything from 2 to 4 hours. If you are the facilitator you need to watch the time. Sometimes the first group discussion can take much longer than expected – when they share their answers. This means you need to plan up front : If they go over the planned timing for that portion of the agenda, will you let the discussion continue and defer the rest of the activities to a later date? Or what will you change to ensure you stay within the contracted time with the group while reaching the goals and objectives for the group session?

If time allows I strongly suggest that you include a team meal at the end of the session. This would allow for some informal social interaction between the new leader/manager and the team members, which further solidifies interpersonal relationships within the team and helps the new leader/manager have a good start with the team.

Ice Breaker for international teams


all hands2

In our globalized world it is very common for employees to have regular contact with people from other cultures and they may attend meetings at various international locations. When you are executing projects on a global scale it increases the importance of ensuring that communication and collaboration go as smoothly as possible in order to meet your project objectives.

Cultures and sub-cultures

You may be surprised to learn that even seemingly basic project concepts could have different interpretations across cultures and sub-cultures. This exercise that I am sharing with you focuses on intercultural aspects of international teams and can help by clarifying assumptions and expectations at an early stage of your project.

When I think of different cultures on a project team, I also include sub-cultures such as between different regions in the same country or different functional groups in the same company. (This link can provide context if you want to look at cultures more closely.)

In the exercise, participants answer questions from their own perspective being as true as possible to how things are done at the location or group that they represent in the exercise. Most people who have lived internationally for some years have already adapted to habits and ways that conform to expectations and habits for their new location and how people do things there. If your intention is to highlight the richness of different perspectives you have present at the event where you run this ice breaker – ask participants to think back to a time when they lived in location X or worked with group Y – how would they answer the question then?

The downloadable document above contains several project-related scenarios which can be used to explore differences in approaches and mindsets within your project team. You may also choose to use the topic of diversity and inclusion as an on-going exploration within your team where you could select one of the topics at each of your meetings instead of trying to cover all of them during a team-building event.

This ice-breaker can be a good item to include in a project kick-off meeting or when you are adding a few more people to the team from a different office/location. This exercise also works well when you have team members who are from the same country, but are from different offices. (It is not uncommon for offices/locations to have slightly different approaches).

Early exploration of different mindsets and assumptions among team members can be a valuable foundation to ensure smoother relationships and better collaboration on your project.  Feel free to suggest additional important scenarios to consider for discussion after you have reviewed the attachment I shared in this post.

Coaching Program Orientation – Presentation


All coaching programs should contain an orientation as one of the starting elements. This session should cover the objectives of the program, what the expectations are for both coaches and those to be coached and any other general information that would be important for the participants of your coaching program. You can choose to combine the two groups for the session or you could choose to do separate sessions for coaches and those to be coached. If you choose the former you may want to add a training or reminder section of any specific coaching aspects that you wish to empathize.

Slides for the orientation meeting

The download file above contains a series of slides to help you get started creating your own. It shows some of the typical questions that coaching program participants may have and answers that may be relevant, but of course subject to your edits to suit your specific needs.

Tips:

  • Be sure to have a Q and A portion to answer any specific questions that anyone may have.
  • The front part of the presentation which sets the scene in terms of “no entitlement to promotion etc.” would be relevant if you have experienced that as an issue in your workforce or talented employee pool. In some cultures that may be seen as “offensive” or even “threatening” that it would be mentioned. So be culturally sensitive when you consider keeping that comment.
  • In the roles section I mention HR as the function supporting the coaching program – depending on your organization that could be your Learning and Development department, your Organization Development (OD) group or any other department/group.
  • Be sure to provide the coaches and those to be coached with all the tools they will need. If not printed and handed out at your orientation session, then perhaps a soft copy on a USB stick or per email after the session. Coaching questions or Preparation for Coaching

New Employee Survey


A New Employee survey is key to capturing feedback on how well your hiring and on-boarding processes are adding value to the early part of the employee’s experience in your company.

The objective of the survey is to capture data over time from various new employees to see if the changes you are making to improve on-boarding is gradually increasing the scores and yielding more positive trends in responses. If you track responses from more than one location you can compare the results to understand if there are any location-based differences in new employee experiences and how you can ensure a consistently great on-boarding process across all locations.

These kind of surveys can be run on a number of online platforms some of which are free to use and others need to be subscribed to. If you find it too daunting to setup such a survey online, use a paper copy of the New Employee Survey. The important part is to gather the data needed to help identify early employee experience improvement opportunities .

Tips:

  • Don’t make the survey very long or you will risk lower response rates, questions skipped or repeated answers.
  • Watch out for questions that seem similar which frustrates survey respondents.
  • Make sure you are asking questions which would generate answers that are actionable. For example I advise against asking “Did you feel good on your 1st day at the office?” If the survey respondent answered “no” you would have limited ability to avoid getting that response from future new employees.
  • Do take the time at least once per quarter (or shorter time periods if you are hiring several people) to review, analyze and summarize the results obtained from the New Employee Surveys. That way you will be able to spot trends and identify specific focus areas for you and your HR/Learning and Development teams to address and improve upon going forward.

Employee On-boarding Checklist


A successful on-boarding process ensures that a new employee is able to deliver top performance (creating value) at your company as fast as possible.

People centered HR Processes MODEL

A successful new employee on-boarding process starts before the new employee is due to arrive and it is a structured process vs an afterthought. Some HR platforms include an on-boarding module which supports communication with the expected new employee and key stakeholders at the company who play a role in the on-boarding process. On-boarding activities can include training to be completed, forms that need to be finalized and submitted etc. Coordinating all of these activities and documenting the on-boarding plan is often the responsibility of HR.

This template is a basic version and you should add your own additional items to help new employees understand your industry, office building and business better. If the new employee will be in a customer-facing role you may need to include introductions to customers too.

I would say the signing off by the manager and new employee is optional – depends on your company culture and how you would prefer to run things at your office. The important part is THAT you have a structured process to bring someone new into the company and that this process is run in a consistent manner. That way you can be sure that each new employee has received all of the support needed to as quickly as possible understand the way things are done at your company and who to talk to about specific topics and ideas. This is a vital part of ensuring the newly hired employee gets to the top of their performance potential in the shortest possible time period and feel welcome – engaged – from day 1.