Creating top-performing cross cultural teams

July 4, 2017 4:12 pm

Dubai counts among the most multicultural, cosmopolitan societies in the world today, where close to all projects and operational project teams involve people from several cultures. Therefore, skilled management of cultural differences is desirable.

In business, sports and medical research, as well as within diplomacy, academia and government bodies, success depends on cross-border interactions. This always requires multi-cultural knowledge. Should project organisations be an exception? Can we afford to neglect the enormous challenges and innovation potential the culturally diverse projects offer, by not investing our very best in managing them?

From a business and project plan perspective – clearly not. And it all starts with Senior Management.

Short-term, long-term, small or big – projects vary in structure, costs and risk levels. But one “uncontrollable” factor remains: all projects are both led and executed by people. And however highly educated or logical we are, we can’t act culturally neutral.

Our hearts speak louder than our minds and, under stress, our emotions and instincts overrule logic. Cultural diversity often causes misunderstandings, conflicts and errors that break the success and efficiency in projects instead of making it. Cooperation, speed, quality, accountability and innovation suffer and, in high-risk industries, safety bleeds. Intentions get twisted and logic and emotions collide.

When cultures meet, the right mental software is needed to build successful cooperation. How come we don’t attribute the same awareness to adapting our mindset and behaviour, as we do to remembering our phones and laptop adaptors when travelling? Both are about being able to communicate, after all.

Project Management is certainly demanding enough in itself, holding an enormous risk of potential failures, even before the factors of human diversity are added to the equation. Once added, the management responsibility, both at the top level and for each project team manager, requires special awareness and competence in understanding the cultural “codes” of team members, partners and contractors.

By default, we expect others to think, feel and behave like “us”. Then, when they don’t – we assume they are wrong, less competent, or even lazy. Sorry – not likely. It is not about being right or wrong, good or bad, superior or inferior – it’s about being different.  Common sense isn’t common anywhere.

The “best” methods or answers are all about perspective. The most innovative solutions emerge when different backgrounds and creative ideas are listened to and brought together to break new grounds. Then, the demonstration of “soft skills” management certainly proves its effect on the bottom line.

What skills do you need to optimise success in multicultural projects?

Distinct patterns have been identified for how national cultures behave in general. Knowing these would help you navigate wisely and effectively, and release motivation. The most important country-specific areas to learn are communication styles – for instance, are they direct or diplomatic? – and listening styles.

Strange ways of communication cause loss of face or anger, even with the best of intentions. Likewise, negotiating follows markedly different strategies – and preparing the tailored way for Russia, the US or Korea before contract negotiations may grant you a much better outcome.

Time perception varies and has practical consequences for deadlines, meetings and delivery precision. A German and an Indian would rarely perceive time in a similar way, for example.

The same goes for meeting styles: if the Dutch, the Emiratis and the Japanese are to get anything from the meeting, it needs careful planning and facilitation not to end up as an endless waste of time and a cause of frustration.

Efficient leadership behaviour, motivation, how to build Trust: they’re all the same story. What is hugely effective with some cultures turns out disastrous in others. Hundreds of practical examples linking facts to specific cultures could be given.

Despite all of the special national characteristics, the Lewis Model of Cultures has been able to group these into three main cultural colour-coded categories.  Founded in the early 1990s, after travels in 135 countries and doing business in most of them, Richard D Lewis, who was later knighted, developed a model on cultures.

Now world-renowned, it was then reviewed in the Wall Street Journal as “the authoritative road map to navigating the world’s economies”.  The model shows all of the cultures positioned relative to each other on a triangle and provides an easy overview.

Briefly summarised, the three categories that make up the model are:

“Blue” or linear-active category are countries dominated by traits such as affinity for direct communication, honesty, scientific truth, structure, logic, problem solving, data generation, quality, accountability, punctuality, planning and task orientation. Order may overrule enthusiasm, and competence gives credit and authority over traditional hierarchy and age. The direct and goal-oriented linear-active way may often be perceived as blunt, insensitive and demotivating by the other categories.

“Red” or multi-active category, despite its wide spread in geography and religion, is united by people being more personal, talkative and emotional, people-oriented, sociable, less detail-oriented, punctual and “truth”-focused than the linear-actives, nor motivated by structure, detailed planning, agendas or logic. Great importance is given to family, loyalty, honour, flexibility and creativity, and enthusiasm is more easily created and demonstrated.

“Yellow” or reactive cultures put harmony, respect and protection of face above everything. When threatened, all other things may be sacrificed to preserve them. Highly indirect and careful communication is a consequence of this, as a kind of “risk management”. Thorough listening, group orientation, Confucian principles in roles and hierarchy and an almost endless amount of patience offer very different qualities than for instance the linear ones – and, needless to say, infinite possibilities for mutual frustrations and distrust in teamwork with linear-actives, when not managed.

Each culture can be placed within one category based on their overall traits and values. However, each individual from any one culture is different and will possess a unique combination of traits from all of the three categories.

For excellent, innovative results, all types and contributions are needed, but fruitful cooperation doesn’t happen without deliberate efforts.

When looking at the world map classified according to these cultural working styles, we get this:

How to improve excellence, speed and success in multicultural teams?

Not only do we know that multicultural teams are far more demanding to manage than mono-cultural ones, but systematic studies and research have also shown they perform either as the lowest performing or the most successful ones compared to homogenous teams. The latter often perform average and moderately, lacking the broad potential only multicultural teams can hold.

Here lies the huge potential for making your diverse projects the superior ones.

What did the project managers for the best teams do to increase their performance level? Their secret to success was rather simple:  they found it worthwhile to MAP, BRIDGE and INTEGRATE the people and staff involved, from the start and through the process.

Otherwise equal, these were the factors that made some project teams stand out, compared to the equally skilled ones where cultural factors were neglected, allowing the teams to slow down and split.

By Lance Bell, Cartoonist

Mapping: Cultural categories, individual working styles and team compatibility

Mapping is knowing your people. What nationalities and cultures are involved in the project? Who are the owners, payers, investors, know-how experts, workers, end users and customers? Who will meet, who will need to work closely together, with whom is it crucial to build communication, trust and long term relationships?

But the start is knowing yourself – and where the strongest and most important positive role modelling effect always comes from: the Top and Senior Management. The right attitudes, mindset and tools will cascade through the project’s organisation and teams, if the top project management shows the way.

There are several possible ways to map, but a well-tested, structured method that has proven helpful is having everyone do a personal cultural profile assessment, giving both individual and team profile overview (optimally the total project organisation). Using the Lewis Model and the self-assessment tool based on it, everyone gets positioned in the triangular world model, showing relative closeness and distance to any other cultural group and team member. This always adds great value to team building, conflict management and coaching.

The overview shows variety in teams and individual players, raises awareness, predicts expected behaviour, explains misunderstandings and secures alignment and efficiency.

Bridging and Integrating: Explain differences, build relationships, share strengths

A mapped team can face their positions and differences in the open, know why the others do as they do, laugh about themselves when adjustments from “default modes” are needed and constructively use their diversity. Analysing their strengths and working with the compatibility makes the team stronger and improves results.

Showing respect by adapting one’s own behaviour starts positive spirals, helps avoiding potential frictions, helps leadership to be smooth and inspiring and speeds up constructive cooperation in general.

So, what can we advise?

* Know yourself and analyse how your own culture may be seen from the outside

* Be willing and flexible to adjust your behaviour in order to show respect, and build trust and commitment. Change isn’t only for “the others”, it is a mutual obligation, for both hosts and expats

* Map the cultures involved in your project and learn about them

* Never assume that a “clear message” is understood by everyone. Since it always will be filtered through cultural contexts, make sure all are on the same wavelength!

* When in doubt, seek available expertise and process support to optimize the cooperation

* Recognize and utilize the good intentions and strengths from all involved

* Allow time for your project teams to learn, develop trust, bridge and integrate their contributions – it will pay off!

Conclusion: Project Management is a profession of steadily growing importance and, while the world “shrinks”, projects of all sizes, complexities and durations become increasingly diverse. To achieve common goals, everyone involved is responsible for acquiring the needed knowledge and, by that, contribute to an optimal climate for cooperation, excellence and innovation.

The project managers who can turn cultural diversity into a benefit possess huge competitive advantages. Overcoming cultural barriers and managing to creating winning teams are the kinds of “people leadership excellence” that will be highly in demand in foreseeable future.



Marit is the owner of CultureCatch Consultancy and Senior Partner at Richard Lewis Communications, London. An expert leadership trainer with a 25-year long career