Six Strategies for Transcending Cultural Barriers in Teams

By Jaicy Joseph, Kepner-Tregoe

Team members can bring a diversity of life experience and professional expertise to projects, often working across cultures and time zones under varied conditions that can influence project progress.  Against this dynamic backdrop, projects take on a new level of complexity.  Yet diversity is rewarding; providing new perspectives that improve decision making and problem solving and reduce the potential for groupthink and oversights.

The cultural diversity that characterizes 21st century organizations is challenging leaders to take actions that can unify teams around shared goals.

How does a cross-cultural team unify around common goals?  Here are six guidelines for making the most of the diversity that characterizes 21st century organizations.

  • Meet with purpose:  Co-workers meet and converse frequently.  However, these meetings/conversations often fall prey to repetitive or unproductive patterns, especially in recurring meetings.  Sometimes, a simple tweak such as modifying the purpose and objectives of the meeting from one meeting to the next positions participants to think about ways to contribute.  How often are your meetings (recurring or otherwise) set up with a clear indication of a purpose?  Focusing participants’ attention can enrich interactions and move work forward.
  • Engage people for meaningful contribution: Team members have different areas of expertise, skills, information and abilities.  On occasion, you need someone’s concrete worldview to quickly get things done. At other times, you need individuals who can think strategically.  Being aware and clear about what needs to get done and drawing on the team members’ unique information, skills, experiences, attitudes, and constraints, provides team members with the opportunity to achieve your goals.  Such clarity ensures engagement as milestones are accomplished.  Participants need to understand why they are being pulled into a conversation or meeting and how they can best contribute.
  • Clarify context: The meaning is in the context. Ambiguity, caution and fear springs from not knowing the context, and it can make team members anxious.  A leader clarifies intent by making the context known to the participants and gathering information with consideration to context.  Leaders have a unique vantage point. By observing conversations in different platforms across an organization, they can understand where further analysis and development may be necessary.  One-on-one intervention may be needed to address an individual’s behavior, a team intervention can address group behavior, and an organizational level initiative (constituting multiple one-on-ones and team interventions) may be mandated especially when confronted with major changes—in markets, customers, business strategy, etc.  How often is the context clear in your organizations and teams?  Adding clarity reduces speculation and builds a foundation of trust.
  • Let goals guide actions: Everything has consequences.  Things that are thought, said (or left unsaid) in a professional environment can provide or withhold valuable input.  Team members are empowered by eliciting their input and making the thinking behind actions visible.  Shared experiences and clearly articulated thinking processes help to align or realign team members around goals.
  • Get to the root of conflict: Consider disagreements as opportunities to understand how others see the world.  Asking questions that uncover conflicting assumptions can lead to better collaboration and judgment.  Many resolvable concerns may be masquerading as one insurmountable concern.  Mediation and clear communication help to build consensus and resolve conflict.
  • Reflect and learn: Pausing between conversations can be very powerful. Stepping back and thinking about how an interaction influenced or was influenced by the existing culture helps to clarify what might be done differently next time. Taking the time to reflect and learn reduces future conflict and promotes ongoing improvement.

Organizations and projects that encourage engagement, address cross-cultural barriers and maintain a clarity of purpose are positioned for navigating change and achieving ongoing success.

About Kepner-Tregoe

We all hope that you are well during this disruptive time in our world’s history.  For over 60 years our company, Kepner-Tregoe has had the opportunity to help major organizations navigate successfully through radical change, help solve intractable problems and increase incident and problem-management performance through tools, training and consulting – leading to highly effective teams ready to respond to your company’s most critical issues.


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