How To Form A Cohesive Team Across Cultural Divides



This article was based on episode 95 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Become a member of The Modern Manager community at www.mamieks.com/join. Purchase individual episode guides at mamieks.com/store.


Culture. Such an elusive concept. What exactly is it? And how do managers proactively build culture when their team is spread out across the globe? Can we really join forces when our strongest beliefs are at odds with one another?


Jonah Fisher, director of Seeds of Peace’s international innovation arm, GATHER, has more than a few thoughts on this topic. Jonah’s passion for social innovation has led him to the building of a micro-finance organization during the global recession, an interfaith service-learning program during times of unprecedented bigotry in the US, an international social-entrepreneurship accelerator, and most recently, a co-working space for social entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv.


Jonah defines culture as all of those ineffable messages and habits we absorb from our surroundings. That includes signals from both family and society for everything from how we speak, stand, eat, and work.


It’s not easy to bring people together to form a cohesive team culture, even when the cultural differences among members is minimal. Based on his years of experience, Jonah details a thoughtful process for how to reach that “sweet spot” of successfully combining people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and work locations to produce the strongest, most creative teams.


IT STARTS WITH THE INTERVIEW


The interviewer initially establishes and expresses the culture (or cultural awareness) of the team during this first interaction. When interviewing someone from a different cultural background, be aware of the way in which your manner of dress, formal or casual approach to conversation, etc might affect the prospective employee. Dressing down, if it feels appropriate, will send a relaxed message. Beginning the interview with culturally appropriate humor can relay a message of warmth.


Within the first ten seconds of an interview, you can get a sense of the other person’s comfort level. Look for facial cues and body language. Observe how the prospective employee reacts to humor and adjust your style accordingly. For example, if he responds dryly, the interview will probably lean towards a more serious style and you can follow suit.


When conducting an interview, in addition to skills and experience, you’re trying to understand who this person is; what they care about, how they think, and where they come from. The best way to get them to open up about who they are, is to open up about who you are. Start the interview by sharing about your own experiences, your educational background, where you grew up, etc. Be personal without oversharing. Then ask them similar questions about themselves and what’s important to them. As you get a sense of what they value, you are better able to meet them where they are.


Lastly, Jonah suggests trusting your gut. Within the first five minutes of speaking, you can often sense if you are seeing things in a similar way. The intent is not to agree or think alike, but rather to feel aligned. You should sense that you share the same vision, aesthetic, style, or tone that will enable you to work together well.


ONCE YOUR TEAM IS FORMED, BRIDGE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES


Once your team is formed, you need to find ways to unpack your shared humanity from across cultural divides. One of the easiest ways to quickly create connection is to find common pain points. While running a program connecting people from different conflict zones, Jonah found a group of women from Cypress, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and India sitting together on the porch, drinking wine. They had spent the past hour digging into the ways in which their work and relationships suffered by being a woman in each of their countries.


In a work context, it might be as simple as discussing the stresses of parenting or inconveniences of traveling for work. People unite through their shared experiences of challenge.


When actively listening to your teammates’ stories, show you understand the complexity of their narrative through your own words and body language. It’s not enough to espouse generalities of aligned values and support. Instead, truly learn from them so that you can be a champion for them and their well being.


ESTABLISH YOUR VIRTUAL CULTURE


Even the strongest virtual teams benefit from occasionally meeting in person. Teams that are only virtual will often begin to sink at some point. During those in-person gatherings, focus on deepening shared trust and sense of community, so that when you return to virtual teaming, you can build off that momentum.


When you do meet, whether virtually or in person, spend the first few minutes just catching up, reestablishing connection and showing appreciation for one another. Don’t rely only on written communications. Even though time zones can make meetings difficult to schedule, written text can lead to all kinds of assumptions and mis-interpretations that create unnecessary conflict. Speaking in real time on a regular basis helps maintain a healthy relationship and minimize miscommunications.


In addition to meeting scheduling difficulties, working across time zones can make response times confusing. Set clear expectations for what needs to be responded to on what timeline. Let team members know if you plan to continue working but they don’t need to respond right away. Explicit communications like these help team members establish a healthy work/life balance.


Lastly, your virtual culture will undoubtedly include a set of collaboration apps. Nowadays, there are so many great tools that people are becoming almost tribal about their apps of choice.. Some people are Zoom-people, others are Skype-people, and connecting across these boundaries requires additional effort.


To offset these technological cultural challenges, as a manager you have to be very direct with your team. Determine which tools you will all use and why. Be sure there's a logic to your choices to avoid continued push back. Once the team has decided on its collaboration tools, be sure to actually use them. If there’s a lack of commitment and usage, and the content within the tools becomes out of date, everyone will go back to their own way of doing things.


The challenge of building a cohesive team culture across cultural differences is great, but not impossible. Through proper preparation, organization, and heartfelt listening, diverse, compassionate team cultures will have the tools to best thrive in our increasingly interconnected world.



Win one of two coaching sessions with Jonah on social innovation when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at mamieks.com/join.


This article was based on episode 95 The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.


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