Team-Building Across Different Cultures

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Research has identified numerous challenges inherent to team-building across cultures, and the first group among those are communication-related challenges. First of all, disparities in the mastery of the team’s operational language – usually English – can lead to disharmonious teams and even enmity between the team members due to the perceived or real difference in treatment. Apart from that, insufficient mastery of polite forms characteristic for a given language can present a considerable issue for team members coming from cultures that put a heavy emphasis on politeness toward colleagues, clients, elders, etc. Both these problems may reflect negatively on the overall efficiency of team-building across cultures.

Other issues related to communication in multicultural teams include the loss of meaning and the misreading of non-verbal cues. Even when both interlocutors have a reasonable command of the same medium of communication, there is still no certainty the information will be encoded and decoded correctly. For example, Americans tend to interpret “Yes” as “I agree,” while, for the Japanese, it usually means “Yes, I am listening.” In a similar vein, people coming from low-context cultures that do not assign particular importance to non-verbal communication may have trouble reading the meaning behind the non-verbal behaviors of their teammates from high-context cultures. As a result, communication-related challenges may occur even when all interlocutors have sufficient and roughly equal mastery of the team’s vehicular language.

Another set of challenges in team-building across cultures relates to the process of learning. To begin with, in high-power-distance cultures, learning is usually seen as instructive and, as such, the prerogative of the superior who disseminates knowledge. Consequently, when representatives of such cultures operate in organizational contexts with small power distance because they perceive learning as an instructor-dominated process and are less likely to demonstrate initiative. Apart from that, in non-consensus or top-down cultures, the decision-making process is much swifter, and building relationships between the deciding parties is perceived as not particularly important, while consensus cultures put much greater emphasis on building relationships with a long-term focus. Finally, low motivation to learn about the team members’ cultures may be a challenge in its own right.

Importantly, the difficulties arising from these challenges do not impact only those directly involved in potential conflicts of tensions resulting from cultural differences but impede the team as a whole. An increase in diversity may cause the activation of negative stereotypes about other cultures. When the motivation to learn about a different culture is low, stereotypical judgments become dominant and can severely undermine the performance of a multicultural team. The resulting intercultural tension tends to spill over into the collective and impact uninvolved observers as well. Consequently, the team as a unit begins performing worse, and prejudice between the team members increases, which is always detrimental to team-building across cultures.

Positive Factors

Research has also identified a number of factors that can have a positive impact on intercultural team-building. The concept of cultural intelligence is particularly important in this respect. First of all, motivational cultural intelligence – that is, the willingness to interact with people of other cultures – is a strong predictor of effective team participation in diverse environments. It also has a positive impact on the efficiency of information exchange within the team. Secondly, behavioral cultural intelligence – that is, the ability to successfully interact with people of different cultures in practice – has its positive effect as well. It increases the efficiency of cooperation between team members and promotes the development of shared values in a multicultural team.

Other positive factors relevant to team-building across cultures are multiple language proficiency and higher levels of the organizational learning culture. The ability to maintain communication in more than just the team’s operational language of choice is strongly associated with better performance in multicultural teams. Research suggests that the team members’ proficiency in each other’s languages contributes positively to the performance of a culturally diverse team. Other studies also point out that higher levels of learning culture correlate strongly with more efficient team-building. With this in mind, one can safely conclude that mastery of numerous languages and organizational learning culture are both factors that can contribute to intercultural team-building.

Leader Competencies

Promoting and maintaining learning culture is, obviously, the responsibility of a leader, which brings a legitimate question of which leadership competencies are the most relevant for team-building across cultures. The most prominent theoretical concepts used to rationalize the leader’s role in the context of building a multicultural team are cultural intelligence and global mindset. The former has been elaborated on above, and the latter refers to the leaders’ ability to influence people, groups, and organizations that are unlike their own. Both concepts overlap quite a bit, but, generally speaking, cultural intelligence is mainly concerned with operational-level leadership, while global mindset refers more to the leadership on the higher normative and strategic levels. Other than that, though, the difference is not particularly significant.

Leadership Approaches

While leadership competencies are the qualities potentially conducive to effective team-building across cultures, there is also the need for specific strategies useful for preparing a leader to build multicultural teams. The first of these is what one may call a culture-specific approach. It generally amounts to educating leaders about a given culture and preparing them to interact with its representatives by providing relevant information and developing interaction guidelines. It was originally the first approach to training leaders for multicultural teams, and it still retains considerable prominence. The second option is the culture-general approach. Unlike the culture-specific approach outlined above, it focuses not on the knowledge of particular cultures but, rather, on the cognitive and metacognitive ability to adapt to different cultural contexts.

Approaches Evaluation

While there is some literature on both approaches, the comparison of their relative efficiency remains elusive. The only study found to specifically deal with the advantages or disadvantages of culture-specific and culture-general training provided no decisive evidence on the matter. Based on the research sample drawn from the MBA students in the United States and Germany, the author concluded there was no evidence in favor of either specific knowledge about other cultures or the general ability to manage intercultural situations. Other than that, there have been theoretical claims of the relative efficiency of inefficiency of each of the given approaches, but little, if any, empirical evidence to support them. Consequently, the question of the relative advantages of both approaches largely remains a gap in the research.


As one can see, research on leadership and adjacent issues has gathered a considerable amount of evidence on team-building across cultures. Scholars have identified several prominent challenges, including disparity in language competencies, loss of meaning, insufficient mastery of non-verbal communication, different cultural orientations in terms of power distance, low learning motivation, and ambient cultural disharmony. Researchers have also noted positive factors for intercultural team-building, including multiple language proficiency, motivational and behavioral cultural intelligence, and organizational learning culture. The development of these is the responsibility of the leader, which led to the creation of two prominent leadership approaches – namely, culture-specific and culture-general – as the ways to train for intercultural team-building. However, there is no agreement on which, if any, of these approaches is superior to the other, and the empirical data on the matter remains scarce.


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