Enriching because other cultures bring attractive and fresh perspectives, challenging because we in an international environment have to deal with differing rules, norms and values – plus we often speak to each other using a lingua franca that is a foreign language to us. So the question is how international teams can benefit from their diversity and how possible challenges can be met with confidence – the objective always being to find successful ways of working together to reach the goals set by the team and its client.
There is a set of clearly defined and proven criteria for successful collaboration in international teams. These criteria include common vision, clear objectives, reliable relationships, clear roles and effective processes, with particular emphasis placed on team communication and the team members’ personal cultural profiles. On the one hand it is key to recognize and understand the different forms of communication – on the other hand every team member needs to become aware of his or her specific cultural profile, which includes cultural norms, values, beliefs and behaviors.
Experience shows that international teams benefit far more from team development training than “monocultural” teams do – especially if these teams normally work in different countries and communicate virtually. The earlier the training is done in the team-building phase, the more effective it is (e.g. as the kick-off event). Its impact is comparable to a catalytic converter that boosts team processes. Milton Bennett und Ida Castiglioni once called the result of that process a “grounded feeling,” with increased levels of trust and openness in the team. Teams that are not specifically developed in this way early on tend to soon lag behind regarding targets. Especially good results are yielded if teams can benefit from the team’s diversity and develop effective working styles based on the specific cultural strengths of the team members.
International teams often communicate using English as their shared lingua franca. But let’s be honest here: There are many challenges associated with this – many surrounding the issue of “losing face.” Sometimes a native English speaker speaks too fast or uses too many idioms for the non-native English speakers to follow, or the non-native English speaker has such a thick foreign accent that it is hard to understand him. Or the English language skill levels vary so strongly that some team members are intimidated and speak as little as possible to not risk losing face. This is especially the case when the dominant group in the room speaks English as a mother tongue.