Understanding Global Team Culture – Not a Smooth Disney Ride

July 18, 2016

Written by: John A. Hinojos

The ride, It’s a Small World, in the Disney parks focuses on the various regions, people, and cultures of the world, as a boat effortlessly glides by the various settings.  At the finale of the ride, you enter into this huge room with animated dolls, representing the cultures of the world, all singing in harmony, in English, and all working in union.  Once you get the haunting tune of the ride out of your head, you realize (or wish) that working with global teams was as easy as the end of the ride.

A few years ago, global teams were the challenge for very large organizations who had operations sprinkled throughout the world.  With the globalization of the economy and the proliferation of regional trading partners, the prospect of having a global team can now challenge even companies under 250 employees.

There are many aspects of working with global teams, but one of the most challenging can be understanding the various nuances of the culture that each individual works under.  Here are a few items to consider as you look to work with a global team and the various aspects of culture.

Understanding Everyone’s Roots

People are a complex mixture of cultures and backgrounds.  While you still can find someone whose ancestry goes back hundreds of years in one culture, today’s mobile and industrialized world has created a workforce which is a mixture of many cultures.

Take myself for example.  If you were to look at my last name, you would assume I was of Hispanic background and more inclined toward the Latin/Mediterranean cultural approach to business.  However, you need to understand that is only part of my heritage.  My mother was from Scotland (where most of my relatives still live) and most of my business values and approaches are more British than Hispanic.  The key here is not to assume someone will react in a particular way based on their ancestral last name.

You need to have a good understanding of the background, and the different cultures your team members may have in their upbringing.  This is coupled with the various countries where the team members may have lived or worked.  All these variables can impact the way a person may act or react.  Get to know your team members.  This may be a challenge when you are dealing with cultures that may be more guarded with their personal lives.

Use the Tools Available

It is impossible to understand every characteristic about all your team members and the societies of which they are part; however, there are multiple tools you can use to have a better chance at success.

First, spend some one-on-one time with each team member to get to know them.  What are their personal goals with the project?  Understand key areas that may be of concern.  While you may not know everything about the team member, it will help you understand some of their values, which can impact their work and the project.

Second, make sure you are getting everyone’s input.  Some cultures may hold back in giving their opinion unless they are asked.  Other cultures may never give a dissenting opinion if you are perceived as being the “leader,” and someone with whom they should not disagree.  You need to know how each member will approach input, and manage to each individual’s needs.  Talk with them and understand their viewpoint.

Third, language is always an issue.  Everyone will come to the project with a different grasp and use of the common business language.  The use of English in the United States is not the same as that in the United Kingdom, Australia, India, or China.  Similar words may have different meanings or could actually be insulting.  Know the differences in the language usage.  Consider a singular vernacular or lexicon for your project.

Lastly, you will never fully understand the fine points of a culture if you have not either lived or been born into that culture.  Do not try!  This does not mean you should not do some research.  There are many excellent sites on the internet which provide you with valuable basic information about working with different cultures.  Investigate them and use those specific to the countries of your team member’s heritage or working location.

While there is no magical solution to understanding all the cultures represented within your global team, with a little understanding, you can create an environment which will nurture these differing views into a global team.  Like the end of It’s a Small World, you can have a global team that is singing one song.  HRchitect has many consultants who have been well versed in global projects and team culture.  With team members from different countries and with various backgrounds, we can provide assistance to you for global HCM strategy, system evaluation, change management, and implementations.

John Hinojos

About John Hinojos

John  A. Hinojos is Vice President, Consulting Services for HRchitect. He has been in the HR and HR systems industry for over 30 years.  He holds a degree in Mass Communication/Public Relations, and teaches courses on managing global HR systems projects.