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How do Culture and Communication Impact Multicultural Global Teams?


The culturally homogenous team is a thing of the past in most international organisations and companies.

More and more teams are made up of people with different nationalities and therefore different cultures, languages, ideas, behaviours and ways of doing things.

Some would argue that the ‘international language of business’ negates any real communication issues within such a cross-cultural team; however those with hands-on experience in such teams would disagree.

When people of different cultural backgrounds come together in any setting there will always be issues in terms of interaction. This is because they bring with them their own cultural baggage in terms of how they do things and expect things to be done.

Cross-cultural issues will not always be a hindrance, in fact, they can many a time be a force for positive creativity, but as and when a clash of cultures occurs it has a negative impact, especially within a team.

By way of introducing the impact of culture and communication within global teams, we focus on four examples of issues that occur when team members are of differing nationalities.

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4 Examples of Cultural Issues in Diverse Global Teams

1. Language: Do We All Speak the Same?

Although English may always be the language of the office it does not mean everyone is totally confident in its use. Also bear in mind they may not appreciate the language to the same degree as a native speaker.

Issues resulting from this include:

  • Non-native English speakers may be more reluctant to express themselves freely. This might interfere with the ability of team members to offer their maximum contribution.
  • Non-native speakers may not always be able to express themselves in the manner they intended. Words can be misused, given the wrong emphasis or statements can come across as rude.
  • Some cultures rely heavily on the use of body language and gestures. When non-verbal signals are being given they will not be picked up on by others. Also their communication style may be inhibited when the meetings are conducted virtually.

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Many people we ask about working in a culturally diverse team say they have very positive experiences.

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2. Conflict Resolution: Do We Solve Our Disagreements the Same?

Different cultures approach conflict and disagreement in sometimes very contrasting ways.

Some cultures accept that conflict occurs in the natural order of things and that when it does, it needs to be addressed in a direct and upfront manner. Other cultures however are uncomfortable with open disagreement and will do their best to avoid it in order to save face and not put people in uncomfortable positions. They may withdraw or withhold their opinion if someone strongly disagrees rather than confront another person.

It is important for a team to define the way it wishes to handle conflict and disagreement. However, even after a process has been defined for managing conflict, it is important to bear in mind that cultural values are difficult to change.

People from cultures where harmony is more important will still not be totally comfortable dealing with conflict and confrontation. What is key is that all parties are aware of such differences and sensitive to ways of dealing with conflict.

3. Gender: Do We See Gender Roles the Same?

Every culture or society has its own understanding of gender relations and acts according to them. What is acceptable in one culture may offend in the other. This may play a role on a team to some degree, especially when two ends of the spectrum are represented in a team.

The way men and women in a team interact, the way authority is allocated, assumed or perceived, and the way roles and responsibilities are distributed can all be impacted by different viewpoints on gender. As and where issues arrive it is best to tackle the subject head-on and agree that within the company or team there are specific protocols when it comes to gender interaction.

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Conflict is normal in any team.

Click here to learn what causes conflict in multicultural teams

Photo by Julien L on Unsplash

4. Decision-making: Do We Come to Conclusions the Same?

Different cultures have different ways of making and expecting decisions to be made. Some expect that consensus is the only way to go, i.e. that all team members should be approached for their points of view and use rational debate to come to an agreement. Others believe that the majority rules and debate is a waste of time. Then there are others who believe that decisions are made by the leader or most senior person and not the team.

A global team will have to agree on the way in which decisions will be made. When you consider the decision-making process, it is not just the end result that you need to discuss. It is the process you undergo as you make the decision. For example:

  • Is it all right for juniors in a team to disagree with more senior people?
  • Are discussions limited or open-ended?
  • Is it typical for decisions to come about through a step-by-step process or is it more organic in nature?
  • Is consensus necessary or will majority rule suffice?
  • How supportive are people expected to be to decisions in spite of their original objections?

In conclusion, for multicultural, global and/or cross-cultural l teams to succeed, managers and team members need to be attuned to cultural differences.

Companies must be supportive, proactive and innovative if they wish to reap the potential benefits such global teams can offer.

This goes beyond financing and creating technological links to bring people together at the surface level and going back to basics by fostering better interpersonal communication.

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Photo by Leon on Unsplash

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