Cross-Cultural Diversity Challenging Global Managers

By Erin Meyer Mar 11, 2013

The field of cross-cultural management has changed dramatically over the past 15 years. Reduced travel budgets and the proliferation of virtual communication methods, such as video conferencing, Web-based telephony and e-mail, have meant that many global managers are facing a new leadership hurdle: managing virtual cross-cultural relationships.

Allowing downsized teams to correspond and collaborate across borders with the intelligent use of technology may seem like the ideal way for global businesses to make cutbacks in such an uncertain economic environment. However, managers must be increasingly aware of the challenges related to leading multicultural, cross-border teams. This presents global companies with either a huge opportunity or a serious problem.

Ten years ago a global manager may have been required to understand and interact with just one other culture regularly. This would normally involve being exposed to that culture either through extensive business travel or by the physical presence of a team member. However, today, global virtual teams are the norm, regularly collaborating across borders through e-mail, often without any prior exposure or visual clues to help them understand cultural differences. Suddenly, there is the requirement to understand not “How do I manage one culture?” and “How do they perceive me?” but “How do these various cultures on my team perceive one another?” and “How can I improve the collaboration between those cultures in the workplace?”

Eight Elements that Affect Cross-Cultural Management

Today’s executives must learn to manage these cross-border teams in a new way, with techniques in leadership, decision-making, trust, negotiation and communication, which all differ depending on the cultures within a team. To increase managers’ business effectiveness, I use eight sliding scales that coach managers to understand how culture affects their day-to-day international collaboration. Cultures and countries are placed on these scales according to how their actions are perceived by others. The scales are based on the eight elements that my research has found to have the strongest impact on cross-cultural or multicultural business.

These elements are:

  • Communicating: Explicit versus implicit.
  • Evaluating: Direct negative feedback versus indirect negative feedback.
  • Leading: Egalitarian versus hierarchical.
  • Deciding: Consensual versus top-down.
  • Disagreeing: Confrontational versus avoidance.
  • Persuading: Holistic versus specific.
  • Scheduling: Organized time versus flexible time.
  • Trusting: Task versus relationship.

The goal is to present a framework that helps people decode the way that different cultures understand one another. By considering these scales, managers of cross-border teams are equipped with the understanding to decipher whether behavior in the workplace is cultural or personal, thus allowing them to manage their teams in a more appropriate, sympathetic and, ultimately, effective manner.

For example, one of the most common challenges global managers face is how to handle confrontation and disagreement. Plenty of research exists to confirm that a little confrontation is a necessary and constructive part of working life; however, what if you come from a culture where confrontation is considered rude, or you have people from such a culture on your team? In French culture, for instance, confrontation is widely accepted and taught from an early age, and the school system encourages open disagreement in consensus building. In contrast, Indonesian culture dictates that direct confrontation should be avoided at all costs. In a business environment this difference can present problems within a team, as, typically, Indonesians will not voice their discontent openly, often remaining quiet and reserved. From a French perspective, this might be perceived as being unresponsive or disengaged.

Disagreement poses a similar challenge. In every culture, if you’re working on a team, disagreements will occur sometimes. However, the most appropriate way to express a disagreement varies from culture to culture. In some, a direct approach shows transparency and openness, whereas in others, this may cause strong negative fallout. It is the manager’s responsibility to negotiate these pitfalls.

Be Flexible

We find it difficult to trust people whose behavior and actions we don’t understand, and this can result in miscommunication. The key to avoiding this is flexibility in management: The more we learn to be flexible, working in different ways with different populations, the more effective we’ll be internationally. In fact, at INSEAD, we find that the most effective international businesses consist of teams that have a deep understanding of communicating across cultures. The challenge is a big one, but the opportunity for global businesses is enormous—as long as managers are equipped with the necessary tools to develop strategies that help bridge cultural divides.

Erin Meyer is a professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, one of the world’s leading graduate business schools, and director of the executive education program Managing Global Virtual Teams.

Republished with permission. © 2013 Erin Meyer. All rights reserved.

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