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Building High Performing Cross-Cultural Teams

In 1851, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer pointed out that “one of the greatest intellectual challenges is to understand that something can be both true and untrue at the same time”. Today, 165 years later, it’s a powerful thought of which the “code” is still not cracked. As the world globalized drastically, we all have gotten wiser, but we struggle with this problem more than ever.

There are more than 6.5 billion people in the world spread over approximately 196 countries with an estimated 5,000-6,000 languages and many more cultures. In this vacuum of complexity the challenges of cross-cultural awareness are strongly underestimated.

Understanding the impact of cross-cultural differences on an internal global organization is absolutely crucial. As the success or failure of department lies in the hands of people located in different sites in the world, we have to realize that cross-cultural unawareness can lead to misunderstandings, offence and breakdown in communications. Not only within our global teams, but also with customers.

Think about it; we all have different backgrounds, norms and values. Although people usually manage to do a good job learning from each other’s’ cultures, they simply don’t have the same expectations concerning (non-verbal) communications, etiquette, language, negotiations and work ethics. It’s normal and healthy, but can be painful as a small word or action can derail things quickly.

One of my most painful experiences (of many) was when I just moved to Bulgaria late 2000 and got invited to a birthday party. As a Dutchman I am programmed to take flowers, so I bought a nice bunch of (six) roses -- not knowing that an even-number amount of flowers is seen as inviting death. It’s hard to forget the expression on the woman’s face. In Eastern-European countries an even number of flowers is primary given at funerals. Mistakes are made easily.

It’s a fact not everybody is aware of the pitfalls on cultural awareness. Global companies need to focus on getting everybody on the minimum level of cultural awareness. This doesn’t mean sharing the same norms and values, but rather that accepting and embracing the fact that people are different and react differently in certain situations. Reality is that there is no such thing as one culture or one set of values in a global environment.

Joseph J. DiStefano, a professor of organizational behavior and international management, proved that diverse teams tend to perform either better or worse than homogeneous ones, with more performing worse than better. In theory, cross-cultural teams should create a significant competitive advantage by bringing together different ideas, pools of knowledge and approaches to work. However, in practice, global teams do not often create the value expected. Instead, members clash with each other or with customers, and the teams are either paralyzed into inaction or worse. He identified three clear performance categories in his research.

The Destroyers

These teams are dysfunctional and destructive global teams. This teams neither appreciates nor respects cultural differences. Information is not shared and teamwork becomes a struggle of survival.

The Equalizers

These teams suppress their differences to smooth processes, and in turn, suppressing differences in ideas and perspectives. The teams deliver, but with mediocre quality. These teams don’t conflict, but also don’t leverage the advantages of being different.

The Creators

These teams go far beyond cross-cultural collaboration. Differences are explicitly defined, recognized and accepted, even nurtured, and their implications are incorporated into every facet of the group’s processes. These are the high performance teams breaking all records.

After describing these categories, DiStefano then created a framework, called the MBI approach, to build high performing cross-cultural teams based on the principles Map, Bridge and Integrate. It’s about converting cross-cultural understanding (map) and cross-cultural communication (Bridge) into productive results (Integrate).

If you are interested in knowing more about how these principles work and what techniques can help building high performance teams, I encourage you to google the MBI Approach and look for professionals supporting you with cultural techniques and assessments. A great group to work with is Richard Lewis Communications ( but you can of course also reach out to me for more information. It will be worth it!

- Menno Olgers

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