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.

Ice Breaker for international teams


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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.