Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: Do you Understand the Cultural Differences within your Team?

Creating people alignment is crucial to your business success. It always has been and always will be. But what does this mean in our current business environment where the globalization has spread like a fire? What is the impact on companies? How are leaders dealing with the different nationalities and cultures that are rapidly blending within their organization? How is it affecting teams and people behavior and performance?

Inter-cultural leadership skills have become key for leaders in multinational companies

Working with cross-cultural teams is no longer a ‘nice to have’ experience that you can share on parties, by telling entertaining anecdotes. Today’s leaders are dealing with challenges that are directly related to cross-cultural differences. If they are able to reconcile these differences they accelerate success. If they don’t, they very likely will face issues like resistance, misunderstanding, unexpected behavior, and conflicts that seriously hinder success.

And beware! Over the past decades the globalization of businesses may have mainly gone from the West to the East. Western companies (with the exception of Japanese companies) were merging and acquiring Eastern companies. They brought new cultural influences to the East. Eastern leaders were invited in corporate leadership development programs and educated at Western business schools, learning Western leadership principles. But in the future, merger and acquisitions, like Chinese and Indian companies are already showing, will also be in the reverse direction. This will make it even more important for tomorrow’s leaders (being Western or Eastern) to be capable of dealing effectively with the cultural differences that can hinder successful working relationships.

In my work with leadership teams on cross-cultural issues I frequently go back to what I learned years ago from Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner. I had the pleasure to work with them and to experience how you can boost corporate success by creating leadership alignment based on the reconciliation of cross-cultural differences.

I learned three key lessons that are more relevant today than ever before:

It all starts with creating mutual awareness of the cultural differences that hinder us

Successful leaders are not afraid to start a discussion on the cultural differences they perceive and the effect it has on behavior and performance. They even want this discussion to take place. They understand it is vital to create an open discussion if they want to stimulate mutual trust and commitment.

You can only solve cultural differences when you understand the background of these differences

Frequently I meet leadership teams where the discussion stops at exchanging each other’s point of view and by agreeing on actions to diminish the negative effects. Successful leaders understand that this will probably not improve the situation in the longer term. Behaviors will now be recognized more easily, but will probably not really change. Successful leaders want to go beyond ‘just knowing’ the differences. They want to understand where these differences are coming from, learn from it, and they want their teams to understand and learn from it as well. They know these discussions are never about being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but always about ‘perceptions’ and the ‘value based assumptions’ that are behind these perceptions. They understand it requires extra openness and mutual effort of each team member to get to this level, but they also know it is the key to real team alignment.

Solving cross-cultural issues requires reconciliation, not compromise

Successful leaders see cross-cultural differences as an opportunity to reconcile the best of both worlds. This means creating a new way of looking at and dealing with our differences. Not ‘fighting’ each other but combining our strengths.  They avoid compromise, because it often leads to mediocre solutions: we agree you will no longer do that and I will no longer do this.

“If we both pour water into our wine, we will both have poor wine. If we combine the qualities of our grapes, we can create a great new wine.”

I received this video a view weeks ago from someone who is dealing regularly with cross-cultural issues. A powerful presentation by Devdutt Pattanaik. A bit long, but I am convinced you’ll like it and that you will find it 18 minutes well spent!


What are the cross-cultural differences in your team? How is it affecting your team’s performance? How do you deal with these differences? How do you strengthen the alignment in your team? I look forward to your comments!

Do you want to know more about cross-cultural alignment? Keep following upcoming posts or contact Aad .

2 Comments on “Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: Do you Understand the Cultural Differences within your Team?

  1. Cross-cultural knowledge is an obvious per-requisite for working with any team whose members
    come from different cultures. We acquire this knowledge from
    our reading, from our studies, from company-sponsored
    seminars and most importantly by maintaining a very
    high level of self-awareness when we step outside
    our own cultural boundaries. However managing cross culturally is complex because real business
    issues are complex and often require more than a linear solution.


    • So true, in my experience successful cross-cultural leaders have a high level of self-awareness combined with the ability to learn from other cultures, without neglecting their own identity.
      Thanks for sharing.


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