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How to lead a successful international team

Understanding cultural differences is an essential tool to achieving organisational effectiveness, but managing international teams isn’t always straightforward. Leadership and business culture guru Erin Meyer shares her advice.

Erin Meyer is a Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, one of the leading international business schools, based just outside Paris. 

Her work focuses on how the world’s most successful managers navigate the complexities of cultural differences in a global environment.

She offers cutting-edge insight and practical strategies to improve the effectiveness of projects that span the globe. She is also author of The Culture Map - breaking through the boundaries of successful businesses. 

Erin Meyer

Read Erin's advice on managing workplace harmony

Adapt your style

People often think major cultural challenges involve handshakes or business cards - but as Erin Meyer points out, the reality is much more subtle.

Working relationships with colleagues from one culture can be complex at the best of times. So how do you approach the challenges of managing a multicultural team?
Erin says the secret is to adapt your style:

"In today's global economy you might be a French person working in Korea, you might be a Russian person working in Brazil, or a Scottish person trying to do business in France. But what's really complicated is trying to figure out how to adapt your style to the society that you're working with to get the results that you need.

"Often people think the challenges will be things like, should I shake hands or how should I ask for business cards. But the real challenges are ones that are much more subtle.

"I had a situation in Japan recently where I gave a presentation to a small group of Japanese. Afterwards I asked if there were any questions and no one raised their hand. So I went to sit down. My Japanese colleagues said to me, 'Erin, I think there were some questions. Do you mind if I try?'

"And then he stood up and he looked at the group and he said, 'Does anyone have any questions?' When no one raised their hand he looked very carefully at the audience and then he said, 'Oh, do you have a question?' And this woman said 'Thank you, I do' and she asked a very important question.

"Later on I said to him how did you know those people had questions. And he said we'll it had to do with how bright their eyes were.

"These are the types of things that if were aware of them we can look for the interaction. the silent interaction, that's impacting us. But if we're not aware, we might go through our entire business without even realising how culture has impacted our success.

"For example, I worked with a team a while ago where I had just British and French working on the team. I asked the British what's it like to work with the French and they said, 'Well Erin, you know the French they're very disorganised, they're always late, they're always changing the topic in the middle of the meeting, so it's very difficult to follow them.'

"A little bit later a group from India joined the same team. I asked the Indians you know how'd it going working with the French, and they said to me, 'Well Erin, you know the French they're very rigid, they're very in adaptable, they're so focused on the punctuality of things that it's very difficult for them to adapt as things change around them.'

"This is what I call cultural relativity and you can tease out on my culture map framework how France is between the UK and India, which then leads to these opposite reactions. This can be helpful if you're leading a global team.

"I've been working with Heineken, this big Dutch Brewing Company. And a while ago they purchased a big office in Monterrey Mexico and I had these Mexicans who are managing Dutch people now in the Netherlands.

"People learn from a very young age that an authority figure is really just a facilitator among equals. And in Mexico children learn from a very young age to really defer to the authority figure.

"So I had these Mexicans who are managing these Dutch people and they said to me:

'You know, Erin, managing Dutch people is absolutely incredible because they do not care at all that I'm the boss. So I go into these meetings, I'm trying to roll out my strategy, my team is contradicting me, they're challenging me, they're taking my ideas off in other directions, sometimes I just want to plead with them, please, you know don't forget that I'm the boss so this is really complicated.'

"In today's global world it means it's no longer enough to know how to lead the Mexican way or the Dutch way or the Scottish way or the American way. We have to be flexible enough to adapt our leadership style to the environment that we're working with."

Respect different cultures

Next, Erin explains the mapping system she uses to identify different cultural characteristics in the workplace:

"I've developed a system that I call a Culture Map which divides culture up into eight different dimensions. It looks at things like how do we build trust differently in different parts of the world or how do we make decisions in different societies.

"And then I have countries that are positioned up and down these dimensions that help people to decode how culture is impacting their work.

"If you look at this culture map framework that I have you can start to tease out these often opposite types of reactions that cultures have to one another. So this can be helpful if you're leading a global team.

"There's some research that shows that the highest failure rate when people are working with other countries is not between the UK and China but between the US and the UK. And this happens because people assume, because we speak the same language, because we seem externally that there are no cultural differences.

"We keep trying to push our own culture and that leads to the highest failure rates. So what I suggest is that people remember that, even when you're working with cultures that seem very similar, they always need to be on the lookout for how these cultural differences are impacting their success."

Build trust

Cultural challenges aren’t just limited to face to face interaction. In today’s world of email and telephone, social differences can impact us in various different ways. Erin discusses how trust can be a factor in remote business interactions:

"Often people think that challenges will arise only when we're working face to face. But even when we're working over the email or the telephone, cultural differences may be impacting us. For example in the UK it's very common at the end of a phone call that you would write into an email everything that had been decided and send that recap out.

"I was doing some work in India a while ago. One of my Indian clients said, 'You know, Erin in my culture if we make some decisions on the telephone and we come to some conclusions verbally, that would be enough for me. If you get off of the phone, then and you put into writing everything that we've decided and you send that email to me, that would be a clear signal to me that you don't trust me.'

"So companies need to be thinking about this, not just when we're taking a trip, but at every moment that we're working internationally."

Be flexible

Working with different cultures or societies can require flexibility in your usual management style. Erin explains the importance of introducing these qualities to improve your leadership skills:

"There's some very interesting research that shows that if you show a video of fish swimming through an aquarium, that people in Western countries will see mostly the fish in front, and people in Asian countries will see mostly the things that are happening in the background.

"People in different parts of the world are trained to think differently. So when you bring together people from different countries you can have a much more complete way of seeing things.

"The team may be better at identifying risks, better at coming up with innovative ideas. As long as the manager knows how to manage these differences effectively, it can be extremely positive for the organisation. But you have to be extremely flexible to lead in today's complex cultural environment.

"We have to be flexible enough to adapt our style to the society that we're working with in order to get the results that we need."

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