5 Tips on Leading Cross-Cultural Teams

leading cross cultural teams

Diversity in the workplace offers tremendous advantages.

Studies have shown that socially diverse groups tend to be more innovative than those made up of people from a uniform background.

With today’s increasingly global marketplace, the diversity of a team extends well beyond what background any given individual hails from. More and more often, a team manager in New York may be required to interface with and manage workers across the country or even across an ocean or two. Or perhaps the company is hiring talent from all over the globe and bringing them into one office. In all of these scenarios, leaders of cross-cultural teams need a nuanced mindset.

“While leaders have always had to understand personality differences and manage how people interact with one another, as globalisation transforms the way we work, we now need the ability to decode cultural differences in order to work effectively with clients, suppliers and colleagues around the world,” writes Erin Meyer, Senior Affiliate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD.

Here are five tips to enrich cross-cultural working relationships:

  1. Be Flexible

In Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, she identifies scheduling and decision-making as two key workplace values that vary greatly across cultures. Different cultures prioritize either flexibility or a linear time construct on the road to execution.

To better serve a cross-cultural team, it is best to assess how flexible the various cultures on the team might be to timing schedules. She offers the example of China versus Japan in this context. In China, there is often a race to the finish line once a decision is made. In Japan, offices are more likely to make a plan and stick to it. Understanding this key difference can help avoid team frustrations.

  1. Give Everyone a Voice

It might be easy to get everyone talking when the whole team is present and accounted for in a single conference room. This becomes more of a challenge when attempting to gain consensus around the globe through calls or video conferences. As a result, it’s up to the team leader to make sure that every voice is heard. If there are team members stationed across separate locations, be sure to send the agenda well in advance and actively solicit that remote team for their thoughts, updates or opinions.

  1. Train Everyone in the Corporate Norms

“The amount of respect we show to authority is deeply rooted in the culture we are raised in,” Meyer writes. “We begin, as young children, to learn how much deference should be shown to an older sibling, a parent, a teacher – and later, in business, these same ideas impact how we view the ideal relationship with our boss or subordinates.”

If active debate is a part of the company’s process in team meetings, the staff should be trained and equipped to partake in these efforts. When cultural norms in some locations or among certain nationalities discourage this type of discussion, managers should take extra care to explain the importance of this process.

  1. Encourage Small Talk

Office water cooler banter is a lot harder when an ocean separates a team’s water coolers. Down time and social events contribute enormously to team bonding but are virtually impossible to coordinate across distant office locations. But this fact does not give managers a free pass to let these casual interactions go.

When a mix of cultures is trying to come together in a single office, mangers should make every effort to create opportunities for casual interactions. Happy hours, lunch-and-learn events and even birthday parties for employees can help to bond the team.

  1. Stop and Listen

Too often, a team leader will rely on faulty assumptions: the London desk wastes many hours in the morning waiting for the New York team to wake up, the Singapore team doesn’t take direction well, the Paris team is never at the desk when called. These types of biases internal to a corporation can erode trust and prevent effective collaboration. Instead, a manager should pause before acting and attempt to gain a better understanding of why certain locations operate differently. He or she may have no concept of the local cultures, considerations and needs that impact other offices. It would be wise to ask questions and learn as much as possible before attempting to force changes.

“You need to develop the flexibility to manage up and down the cultural scale,” Meyer explains. “Often this means going back to square one. It means watching what makes local leaders successful. It means explaining your style frequently. It may even mean learning to laugh at yourself. But ultimately it means learning to lead in different ways in order to motivate and mobilise groups who follow in different ways from the folks back home.”

Bottom Line

Managing cross-cultural teams is going to be an increasingly important skill in the global marketplace. Developing sensitivity to local customs and priorities can help managers to better unite their teams no matter how many miles are between them. Once effectively managed, cross-cultural teams can bring unparalleled innovation and unique perspectives to new problems and can be far more effective than any one team with a homogenous group of employees.


Prof. Erin Meyer is Senior Affiliate Professor in the Organisational Behaviour Department at INSEAD and specialises in the field of Cross-Cultural Management, Intercultural Negotiations, and Multi-Cultural Leadership. Erin teaches on this topic in INSEAD’s Global Executive MBA and is also the Programme Director for two INSEAD executive education programmes: Managing Global Virtual Teams, and Management Skills for International Business. She is author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.

About the Author

As one of the world's leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD offers participants a truly global educational experience. With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and Middle East (United Arab Emirates), INSEAD's business education and research spans three continents. The school’s 145 renowned faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,400 students in its degree and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD's executive education programmes each year. INSEAD’s EMBA programmes are highly ranked by Financial Times, and ranked #1 by Ivy Exec in 2018.