In today’s global village, companies increasingly hire employees who are located in different countries. And immigration has made it more common for employees to work side by side with people from other parts of the world. As a result, many workplaces are comprised of a multitude of cultures, which also means they are filled with different traditions, languages and mannerisms. In order for a multicultural workplace to succeed, it requires management that understands how to effectively guide and relate to people from around the globe.
Cross-Culture Management Definition
Cross-culture management happens when a manager oversees employees from a culture other than her own or when employees on a team are from different countries, as well. There are a number of ways a multicultural team might be set up. Organizations have offices in different countries which are managed by people in the head office. At other times, remote employees around the world are managed by someone in yet another country. Another scenario is when people have immigrated from different countries and work alongside others who have also traveled from elsewhere.
For cross-culture management to be effective, the manager must identify and acknowledge the differences in cultures, practices and preferences of the team members. Managers also need to be able to modify or adapt certain business processes or systems, such as the way information is communicated or the how decisions are made, in order to improve the efficacy of the workforce.
Why Cross-Culture Management Is Important
Imagine working in an environment where your manager was oblivious to the issues you had with him or with your team members. Whether those issues were related directly to cross-cultural differences or to another issue, working under someone who is blind to them doesn’t create a welcoming or effective workplace. A strong leader isn’t only responsible for ensuring his team produces excellent work, he is also tasked with creating an environment where good work can actually take place. Cross-cultural managers must be aware of any issues their team is facing, or may face in the future, and then develop strategies to overcome them. Effective cross-culture management contributes directly to the overall success of the organization.
When things are going smoothly, having people from different countries on a team broadens the scope of understanding. People from India may have more familiarity with the Southeast Asian market, for example, while someone from Brazil may know more about what consumers are looking for in South America. An employee from Germany obviously can speak German with their customers from that country, leading to better customer service and engagement. This all contributes directly to the bottom line.
On the other hand, having a cross-cultural team can also cause disruptions to the workplace, such as slowing down day-to-day processes. Different styles of communication, a common issue in cross-cultural business environments, can be frustrating to deal with and can hinder team members from getting their ideas across. Some cultures thrive on flat organizational structures, while others prefer a top-down hierarchy. This mismatch can lead to distress or confusion for some employees. Cross-cultural teams require managers that are trained and experienced in dealing with cultural issues and who can develop strategies to mitigate them.
Common Cross-Culture Barriers
Communication is a major barrier between different cultures. This can come in the form of a language barrier, where some team members aren’t fluent in the language in which business is conducted. It may take them longer to communicate their ideas. They may also be unable to get their message across correctly, or team members may not take their ideas seriously because of their lower level of language skills.
Communication barriers can be related to the styles of communication, too. For example, many Western cultures value direct, to-the-point speech, where Eastern cultures are used to more indirect speech patterns. This mismatch of communication styles can lead to confusion, where team members don't understand what is being said. If you're used to speaking directly, for example, and your coworker is from an Eastern culture and speaks indirectly, you may not recognize what he is trying to say, even if you both are speaking the same language. This could be detrimental, especially if he is trying to give you instructions on how to do something critical to your role in the organization. Different styles of communication can also lead employees to take offense. If you speak in a more direct manner, someone who is not used to that kind of language might be upset or insulted by something you say, even if that is not what you intended.
The way an organization is structured can also be a barrier for cross-culture teams. Organizational structures vary from company to company. They include horizontal organizations where there is no official hierarchy and companies with several levels of management, where the word of the superior is law and not following directives is seen as a sign of disrespect. When working with cultures that view authority differently, the way the organization is structured can cause problems. Some employees may not feel comfortable bringing up ideas that don't agree with the manager's, while others may do so, but make a grave cultural mistake.
One’s culture can also affect decision-making style. Conflicts between the manager and an employee, or between two employees, can arise if one makes decisions analytically and the other instinctively. Similarly, some employees may make decisions quickly, while others take their time. This can cause friction between team members. If the barriers between cultures are not dealt with effectively by management, they can slow down daily tasks, affect team relationships and derail larger business initiatives.
Strategies for Cross-Culture Management
In order to successfully perform as a cross-culture manager, a number of strategies to dealing with issues that arise as a result of cultural differences should be employed. One of the most important strategies is adaptation. Ignoring cultural differences or not understanding their importance can be harmful. Instead, it’s imperative to acknowledge cultural gaps that may exist on the team and figure out ways to work around them. A manager needs to be able to think of creative solutions to cultural barriers. For example, if an employee is facing a language barrier, instead of requiring the employee to take formal language lessons, which can be costly and time-consuming, the manager may spend some time one-on-one with the employee to get him up to speed on specific business terms used every day in the office.
Another strategy some managers use is structural intervention. This enables them to reassign tasks or move employees around on the team in order to improve efficiency, increase learning opportunities and reduce confusion. To do this effectively, the manager must be in tune to each team member’s skills and experience, and understand their strengths and weaknesses. When trying to navigate a language barrier, it may seem like an obvious choice to pair employees together who speak the same language. While this may work in some cases, it may not be effective in the long run because it doesn’t tackle the core issue of language fluency. Instead, the manager might pair the employee with the language barrier with another employee who excels in teaching and communication and has endless amounts of patience.
Some cross-culture leaders choose to use managerial intervention as a strategy to deal with culture-related barriers. This involves setting specific ground rules for the team and stepping in when an authoritative role is required. In the case of the language barrier, for example, the manager may ask that employee to see how much he can learn and communicate on his own. If that plan doesn’t work, the manager may assign someone on the team to review his work to ensure it meets company standards. Or, she may step in herself and review the employee’s work, going over specific communication-related issues in detail with him.
Depending on the severity of the cultural barrier, a manager may choose to completely remove an employee from the team. This is a costly strategy, as the company invests a lot of money and time in hiring and training an employee. However, if the cultural differences are too drastic to overcome, removing the employee from the team may be the only solution. This is likely not the first strategy a manager will try. Instead, an effective cross-culture manager will first spend time figuring out other ways to solve the cultural issue without resorting to termination. In the case of the language barrier, if the employee either doesn’t want to put in the effort to improve his skills in the language of the business or simply doesn’t have the skills to learn the language, then removal from the team may be the only option to salvage the rest of the group. By removing the employee in question, the manager can then focus efforts and energy on the other team members and help them continue to meet organizational objectives, instead of spending a large amount of time trying to resolve a situation that may not have any quick fixes.
How to Train for Cross-Culture Management
Many universities offer courses on cross-culture management as part of a business degree or MBA. The focus is generally on applying established business principles to help solve cross-culture issues in the workplace. These courses establish what culture is and how it affects how employees in the workplace make business decisions and deal with authority figures. Some courses also provide strategies for dealing with common cross-culture problems a manager may face, in addition to negotiation skills that managers can use in the workplace. These courses help managers deal with cross-culture teams they work with, as well as clients and prospects of other cultures.
In addition to getting a formal education in cross-culture management, some leaders may choose to learn on the job by delving in to the day-to-day aspects. Others may try a course from an organization that specifically deals with cross-cultural education for professionals, such as Global Integration, which provides practical tips and tools leaders can apply in the workplace to better deal with cultural differences within the company.
Cross-Culture Management Examples
With the help of global communication tools, such as the internet and mobile phones, it’s easy for companies big and small to operate on an international level. Multinational giants such as Google or Apple operate in several countries all over the world, and it’s a given that their leadership team deals with people from a variety of cultures. However, you don’t have to be Google or Apple to be part of a cross-culture team. Small- and medium-sized businesses also employ people in other countries or people who have recently moved from other countries. With the proliferation of video conferencing systems and teamwork organizational apps, it’s fairly easy for many organizations to collaborate with their counterparts all over the world. Similarly, virtual assistant services are a growing industry, and many organizations outsource these tasks to people that live in other countries, like India or the Philippines.
In any case, whether you’re working with an international corporation or for a mom and pop setup with a virtual assistant oversees, it’s common to run into scenarios where you’re dealing with people from other cultures on a professional level. In a management position, it’s especially important to be aware of the differences so you can mitigate any cultural barriers and lead your organization to success.
- Harvard Business Review: Adapting Your Organizational Processes to a New Culture
- Harvard Business Review: The Explainer: Managing Multicultural Teams
- Reference: What Is Cross Cultural Management?
- Michigan State University: Cross Cultural Management
- Ivey: Cross Cultural Management
- Global Integration: Cross Cultural Training
- Apple: Choose Your Country or Region
- Virtual Assistant Assistant: Virtual Assistant Companies
Anam Ahmed is a Toronto-based writer and editor with over a decade of experience helping small businesses and entrepreneurs reach new heights. She has experience ghostwriting and editing business books, especially those in the "For Dummies" series, in addition to writing and editing web content for the brand. Anam works as a marketing strategist and copywriter, collaborating with everyone from Fortune 500 companies to start-ups, lifestyle bloggers to professional athletes. As a small business owner herself, she is well-versed in what it takes to run and market a small business. Anam earned an M.A. from the University of Toronto and a B.A.H. from Queen's University. Learn more at www.anamahmed.ca.