Three things you must know when running an international team

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Managing international teams is hard. This article covers three of the most important tips to make sure you manage an intercultural team successfully, and how to avoid using "common sense" to judge others.

Leaders are increasingly expected to run a global, multi-cultural team. Here are the three main things you must know to be successful at it.

By Karn G. Bulsuk

In today's world, multi-cultural teams are the norm. Here, we can see both Chinese and Western Australians working together to put on a traditional Chinese Lion Dance.

"How can they not know? It's common sense!" is a shout of frustration that I have often heard from people managing multicultural teams. Unfortunately, it’s important to remember that "common sense" is not a universal trait, and that common sense for one person is not so for another.

Common sense, at its core, is a set of shared assumptions and expectations within a society. Even within the same country, yet alone another continent, common sense can vary wildly. While in Tokyo, for example, it is common sense to slurp your noodles to show your appreciation of the way that the soupy broth is delighting your taste buds, doing so in London at the dinner table would probably not elicit the most positive of responses.

To avoid running the trap of making common sense assumptions, here are three main tips which often trip up leaders – things which appear to be pure and unadulterated common sense – but really isn’t.

1) English is not universal

There are over a hundred different variants of English, each with their own unique lexicon and abbreviations. Even if your entire team speaks good English, there's still plenty of room for miscommunication.

For example, if you asked for something to be done "within the arvo", have you ever considered whether this term exists outside Australian English? Or if you asked someone to "step up to the plate" to people from countries which don't play baseball, would they know you're asking for a volunteer?

Language is highly cultural, so phrases which are common sense to you may not be so for others who do not have the cultural context. To be safe, slang and abbreviations should be avoided, and substituted for universally accepted English expressions instead.

2) Yes may mean no

Although our common sense dictates that “yes” signals the affirmative, many cultures enthusiastically disagree. In many Asian cultures, a yes can have a variety of meanings, such as "I'm listening to you", but not necessarily signify understanding nor agreement.

By saying yes, they may be trying to prevent both sides from losing face if they don't actually understand your instructions. Saying 'no' on the other hand, damages the harmony of the group, which is an important dynamic in Asian cultures.

A good work around to this is to ask them to explain their understanding to you. Especially in cultures where “face” plays a big role in social interactions, it may also be good to discreetly pull someone over for a private chat, to give them a chance to ask questions and explain their understanding of your instructions.


3) Good work may not be good work

The increased use of offshore teams has led meant that there has been a sharp increase in “expectation clash”. Common sense dictates you must deliver good work, but the interpretation of what constitutes “good” may vary wildly, even with the presence of a standard.

While it would be easy to dismiss the offshore team as being incompetent, it is important to understand that local market conditions and culture dictates what is an acceptable level of work. For example, clients in developing countries simply may not yet demand the same level of work and rigor that would be taken for granted in a developed market. As a result, what may be an excellent deliverable from their perspective may barely scratch what we consider to be acceptable.

To prevent this from becoming a major source of conflict, it is important to invest time at the beginning of a project to lay down the ground rules and calibrate expectations with the offshore team. The most effective method is to do an end-to-end walkthrough of the work that needs to be done, covering everything from what and how things are to be documented with plenty of examples. It’s also important to let them know the amount of leeway they have to analyse and come to conclusions on your behalf.

*   *   *

With these three tips, you should to be able to avoid many of the mistakes when working with an international group of people. Although there are different things to think about when running a global team, it can be one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences in your career.

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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead: Three things you must know when running an international team
Three things you must know when running an international team
Managing international teams is hard. This article covers three of the most important tips to make sure you manage an intercultural team successfully, and how to avoid using "common sense" to judge others.
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Karn G. Bulsuk: Full Speed Ahead
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