In my work with managers of international teams comprised of multiple nationalities and backgrounds, the questions that come up most frequently are those that are about the difference between ‘country’ culture and ‘organisational’ culture, and how to create a ‘global culture’.
Do organisations have their own distinct cultures in the same way nationalities do? Are those cultures just an amalgam of all the nationalities that are involved, or something more complex? Are they heavily influenced by the culture of ‘head office’ and whichever country it is located in? And, if so, how do you intentionally create a global culture that works for all those involved, and what are the barriers that will get in the way? Sound familiar?
If you want to create a ‘global culture, there’s three main pitfalls that you need to watch out for.
1. Trying to avoid localisation
Trying to create a single, homogenised culture across a team of 3,000 people spread over 25 countries will have anyone pulling their hair out (trust me, all mine is gone). So stop trying and instead focus on what’s absolutely critical in terms of your beliefs – those that are central to your organisation, what you do and why – and instead share those widely and proudly.
Help all your local staff understand what those beliefs mean to you/ your team and what they look like in practice within your context. Then, let them take that ethos and localise it into their context. How do those beliefs translate? What do these deeply held and understood values look like where they are in the world, in their market, and in their roles?
2. False expectations
Working together across numerous cultures requires a strong sense of awareness and understanding about how those cultures operate. You need to know the cultural differences within your team in relation to your own natural preferences – what Erin Meyer terms ‘Cultural Relativity’. As leaders or managers of global teams and organisations, it sits with us to grow our understanding and adjust our practice however we can to improve performance.
Reading about, talking to, and understanding the people we work with – about how they do business, and what leadership and teamwork look like to them – is critical development. Not only will it help avoid faux pas and increase impact, but it’ll make working together less stressful, increase connection and make things more enjoyable. There’s more advice for working on this understanding on the HR director site here.
3. Making assumptions.
When we start to get to know the cultures we work with, or in more granular terms the people we work with, we risk making assumptions about how they’ll approach or react to things. We all do it, it’s a very ‘human’ way of doing things which is just our brain’s way of trying to be efficient and help us focus. We need to start each piece of work together by checking and agreeing how we’ll do things in this team, on this project, with reference to our values and ethos, even if we think we know that territory well.
This approach will stop us carrying over assumptions from working with a person of a certain culture onto another person of the same culture – or from working with ‘person A’ on ‘project A’ to working with ‘person A’ on ‘project B’. A coach I had once said he challenged himself to “get to know you anew every time you walk through the door, because I don’t know how you have changed or how life has changed since I last saw you.” It’s a message I’ve taken to heart and held on to – and it might serve you well too.
Creating a successful global culture is never easy but remember that we are stronger when we are different than when we are the same, and that it’s right to encourage localisation of a common purpose or set of values because that’s the part that makes it meaningful to everyone, wherever in the world you are.