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Leadership and Communication in Global Cross-cultural Teams

Leadership and Communication in Global Cross-cultural Teams

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Date created
August 23, 2023
Last updated:
April 7, 2024
5 min read
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Key takeaways

• The corporate arena is increasingly global, requiring HR executives to navigate cultural differences and communication barriers when working with global teams.

• Understanding different working cultures is essential for effective cross-cultural communication and team building.

• Tips for overcoming cross-cultural barriers include adjusting communication styles, developing cross-cultural communication skills, embracing diversity, setting clear expectations, addressing communication barriers, fostering a culture of trust and respect, and encouraging cross-cultural communication activities.

Today’s corporate arena is increasingly global. As an HR executive, one day you could negotiate a contract with a new hire in Brazil; the next day be on the phone with your L&D manager in Hong Kong; and by the end of the week, have a virtual meeting with your outsourced design team in India. Inspiring and dynamic as that might be, it can be challenging. Working with global teams means dealing with cultural differences and cross-cultural communication barriers. That’s why you need to be able to understand and navigate the complexities of a multicultural environment. In this article, we’ll explore how to lead a diverse workforce successfully.

1. Intro: Moving from Paris to China

When Erin Meyer, an American expert on cross-cultural management, had to prepare a top executive from Peugeot Citroën to move from Paris to China with his family, she invited Chinese culture expert Bo Chen to the training session. She asked him to prepare several practical examples to discuss during the meeting, which he enthusiastically confirmed. As Meyer knew her Chinese colleague to be an extroverted and gifted communicator, she was unpleasantly surprised that Chen didn’t say a single word during the entire three-hour session. Despite her briefly pausing a few times and desperately looking at him for input: nothing, just a friendly nod back. Finally, when she asked him directly if he had any examples to share, he replied he did, opened his notes, and took off by explaining one after the other fascinating case.

A matter of respect

So what happened here? Why didn’t Chen jump in earlier? This is what he explained: as Meyer was leading the meeting, he considered her as the senior person in the room. Out of respect, he waited for her to call on him for input. That didn’t explicitly happen, as she just kept on talking and was never quiet long enough for him to take his turn. Westerners practically speak on top of each other in a meeting, he continued, trying to make their point without really listening to others. For Chen, this is considered rude. His approach is that you listen politely to others, speak when you are invited to talk, drop reverent silences, and use your words thoughtfully. It’s not a matter of being shy. It’s a matter of respect, he said.

The Culture Map: effectively leading a global team

The example illustrated here comes from the bestseller the same Erin Meyer wrote about the way cultural differences impact international business: The Culture Map. The book explores how people from different cultural backgrounds can communicate, lead and work together more effectively in a complex, multicultural environment as we often find in an international team. It’s a must-read for executives managing a global team who want to understand how to break through the invisible boundaries of global business. For anyone interested in cross-cultural business communication or cross-functional team leadership really.

2. Today’s World of Work is Increasingly Global

Today, whether you work in Amsterdam or Atlanta, in Berlin or Beijing, you’re likely to be part of a worldwide network – even when it’s virtual. A geographically dispersed workforce is increasingly common in today’s world of work. Here’s why:

  • Globalization: as businesses become more global, it’s necessary to have employees in different parts of the world to meet and understand the demands of customers and clients in those regions.
  • Technology: advances in communication technology have made virtual team collaboration and global teamwork so much easier. Video conferencing and project management software enable employees to work together like clockwork, regardless of their physical location.
  • Cost savings: hiring remote workers from all over the world is often more cost-effective than hiring on-site employees. It can save businesses money on office space, equipment, and other overhead costs. In fact, an increasing number of companies don’t even have a physical office anymore: they are fully remote or rely on co-working spaces.
  • Talent acquisition: an international workforce allows businesses to tap into a wider talent pool. Companies can hire the best people for the job, regardless of their location, which can help them stay competitive in their industry.

As a result, HR leaders must be equipped with the necessary cross-cultural communication skills to manage such a diverse and multicultural team effectively. But here’s the thing: most executives communicate daily with employees and peers from other countries via phone, online meetings, and e-mail. That can make it difficult to pick up contextual cues, body language, and cultural subtleties. If you’re unaware of cultural differences within your global team, this could lead to miscommunication and frustration, making it even more challenging to reach your business goals and create a happy workforce.

You might also like: 6 Proven Strategies to Build a Strong Team Culture

3. Understanding Different Working Cultures

To help international managers overcome cross-cultural communication barriers and build a cohesive team, Erin Meyer created a system of eight scales to understand how different cultures vary along a specific spectrum. It can be used to analyze one culture relative to another, decode how culture influences international collaborations, and ultimately create global teams that work. It’s important to note here that by no means the author of the book wants to stereotype cultures or put people in boxes with ‘general traits’. However, if your business success relies on your ability to work with different people from around the world, you need to have an appreciation for cultural differences, as well as respect for individual characteristics.

The framework classifies countries into eight areas:

1. Communicating: low context vs. high context

To conduct effective cross-cultural communication, you need to understand that some countries are low context, while others are high context. In low-context communication, the message conveyed is explicit and straightforward. This is common in individualistic cultures, where people are direct and clear in their communication, like in North America and Western Europe (with the Dutch especially being famous for their directness).

In high-context communication, people use not only words, but also a complex structure of nonverbal cues, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. It’s found in collectivistic cultures like Japan, China, and Arab countries. Personal relationships and social harmony are highly valued there, and people rely on implicit understandings and shared cultural norms to convey meaning. Employees from high-context cultures may find low-context communication to be rude or blunt, while individuals from low-context cultures may find high-context communication to be vague or unclear.

2. Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback

Managers in different parts of the world share negative feedback in dramatically different ways: either direct or indirect (which involves more sugar-coating and sensitivity to the feelings of others). When it comes to sharing feedback, you’ll notice a difference between continents, but it can also vary from country to country – even if a culture is similar at first glance. A Chinese manager, for example, would never criticize a colleague openly or in front of others, while Dutch managers have no problem being honest and giving the message straight, even when it’s en groupe. Americans wrap positive messages around negative ones, while the French are more likely to criticize passionately and provide positive feedback sparingly.

3. Persuading: principles-first vs. applications-first

The art of persuasion is one of the most crucial leadership skills, because as an executive, you often need the buy-in from your team or C-suite to support your ideas or adopt new ways of working. It’s also a skill that is profoundly culture-based, and quite complex. Basically, principle-first cultures (like in Italy and Spain), start with principles. What are the rules, findings, and figures that led to your conclusion?

Western European and North American countries prefer the application-first approach: they want you to come to the point and stick to it. They like to hear the conclusion first, and then more explanation on how you came to that conclusion.

Finally, Asian countries are on a completely different scale: the holistic method. Here, understanding the context is important, before talking about conclusions and the path that leads there.

4. Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical

This scale relates to the way different cultures view leadership. In egalitarian cultures, like in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, employees view leaders as their equals and often call them by their first name. They are not afraid to challenge the decisions of their leaders or speak up in a meeting. Decisions are made by consensus, and individual team members are encouraged to participate in the decision-making process. That’s why egalitarian cultures usually prioritize teamwork, collaboration, and inclusivity.

In contrast, in hierarchical cultures, employees tend to view their leaders as having more authority and power and are less likely to question their decisions. Ranks matter, and there are strict and clear levels of authority. This type of top-down leadership is often seen in Brazil, China, France, India, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.

You might also like: Types of Leadership Styles: Which is Best for You and Your Organization?

5. Deciding: consensual vs. top-down

This scale relates to how people in different cultures approach the decision-making process. In countries that decide by consensus, the group takes everyone’s opinion into account. All the relevant parties consider all the information, and they make a decision only when everybody agrees. As a result, decisions take a long time but are final once made.

In countries that decide top-down, the decision-maker may consider others’ opinions, but ultimately, that individual (usually the boss) makes the decision.

Both consensual and top-down decision-making processes can be effective, but it’s important to explicitly discuss and agree upon a specific method for multicultural team management.

6. Trusting: task-based vs. relationship-based

In task-based cultures, leaders prioritize competence and performance when building trust, for instance through delivering high-quality work, meeting deadlines, etc. Individual achievement is often more important than group harmony, and business relationships remain professional – they don’t bleed into personal connections.

In contrast, in relationship-based cultures, trust is all about personal relationships. It’s built through socializing and getting to know each other personally (for instance through business lunches like you see a lot in Belgium and Spain). Group harmony and loyalty are considered more important than individual achievements.

7. Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoiding confrontations

Meyer divides disagreement styles across two extremes: confrontational and avoiding confrontation. Cultures that disagree openly, like in Western Europe and the US, view disagreement as good for the group process. Disagreement is inevitable when ideas are freely exchanged, as it drives innovation.

In disagreement-avoidant cultures like in Asia, openly disagreeing with someone will likely harm your relationship because it causes people to lose face. In these cultures, people express disagreement in a more subtle and diplomatic way.

8. Scheduling: linear time vs. flexible time

Finally, there’s the notion of time, which affects how different cultures organize their working day, run a meeting, etc. Monochronic cultures like Germany, the Netherlands, and the UK value a fixed, linear schedule. These cultures focus on one thing at a time and value punctuality. They run on “clock time,” eating lunch at noon because it’s noon. By contrast, polychronic cultures work on several things simultaneously, adhering to schedules only broadly. They run on “event time,” eating lunch when hungry.

A great way to evaluate how a culture perceives time is to look at how it approaches meetings. Monochronic cultures follow a previously defined agenda, remain engaged throughout the meeting, and disapprove of drifting off-topic. Polychronic meetings are more flexible: topics change based on that day’s priorities. Multiple conversations coincide as tangents crop up and the relevant individuals discuss them.

4. Tips for overcoming cross-cultural barriers

Managing global teams requires mutual understanding, respect and time. With the right approach and tools, you can build a cohesive global team that works effectively across time zones and cultural boundaries. Here are some tips:

  • Don’t imitate

Learn to adjust your communication style to better align with the expectations of your colleagues and business partners from different cultures, but don’t imitate: you’ll never fully understand the subtle rules of etiquette as an outsider – and that’s ok.

  • Develop Cross-Cultural Communication Skills

Invest time to understand and appreciate cultural differences and learn how to communicate effectively with team members from other backgrounds. This includes understanding nonverbal cues and being mindful of global team communication styles and customs.

  • Embrace Diversity

HR leaders should promote diversity and inclusion within the team at all times. This means valuing team members’ different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds, and creating an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and heard. Celebrate cultural events and holidays, and encourage team members to share their traditions during team building sessions.

  • Set Clear Expectations

Establish clear expectations for team members and communicate them consistently. This includes agreements around work hours, communication and meeting protocols, and project deadlines.

  • Address Communication Barriers

Cross-cultural communication barriers can be a significant challenge at work, so you should proactively identify and address these barriers. Provide training or resources to team members to help them better understand each other, or work with an external consultant.

  • Foster a Culture of Trust and Respect

Foster a culture of trust and respect within the team, where team members feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas, and where constructive feedback is encouraged.

  • Encourage Cross-Cultural Communication Activities

Encourage team members to participate in cross-cultural communication activities. This could include team-building exercises that help team members understand and appreciate their differences and similarities, or exchange programs that allow team members to learn from one another.

At Lepaya, we help organizations adapt to the Future of Work by creating a culture of continuous learning. We build stronger teams and inspire future leaders by offering innovative learning experiences with VR Training and a dedicated AI coach.


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