Can you lead multicultural groups spread around the world?

multicultural, leadership

Leadership can be challenging when your team consists of people of numerous nationalitiets and on top of it are in different locations all over the world. Devote 2 minutes to watching Anne Edmodson, Harvard Business School professor, outline her ideas on how to succeed: 

Geographically dispersed teams offer a lot of benefits – increased efficiency, cost savings, and enables you to choose team members with optimal skills, regardless of where in the world they are. Videoconferencing, intranet and email has already made that way of working an option that’s likely to become even more popular. Actually believe that’s how we will increasingly work in the future. 

To make a success of your global team, chose team players with the right characteristics and ensure that you have the best possible communication. 

Do you understand what drives and motivates people from different cultures?
Do you understand what drives and motivates people from different cultures?

What kind of team members should you chose?

They need to be self-motivated, have good communications skills, be result driven, open and honest.

It’s essential to unite all members around a common objective and communicate clearly and frequently. Set up goals and make sure bonding takes place between all of you. Giving assessment and reward performance is even more important when the members of your team are scattered around the world. 

People who need constant  encouragement and attention to get the job done is a complication to be avoided. You simply cannot devote the time necessary to make such members perform that you would have been able to do if you were in the same office. For the same reason it’s also essential that all members of the team feel they can to come to you with problems and really unite around a common purpose. Everyone must have a desire to reach the team’s goals and clearly understand and be motivated by their roles and responsibilities.

Give frequent and fair feedback to everyone and make yourself available to all members of your team. Can be a bit inconvenient sometimes due to time difference. Have manyh times had to get up extremely early, or stay up late, in order to talk to a team member on the other side of the world. But there is no avoiding it if you want your team to stay on track.

Since you are not meeting on a daily basis it’s also important to visit them now and then to make sure they feel important. 

Don’t forget different cultures and values

Obviously it’s easier for those of us who have lived and worked all over the world. Provided of course that you integrated, understood the different cultures and what drives people from there. Am frequently surprised at how people, especially in the West, just presume that the way we think in say, the US or Sweden, applies to all of humanity. But you have to motivate all members of your team regardless of nationality so it’s essential to make sure you really understand what drives people from different cultures. 

Do you have experience in leading teams of different nationalities spread around the world? Did you find Anne Edmondson’s advice useful? Were you able to build trust when you were not meeting the team on a daily basis? Are you able to ensure that everyone feels they’re treated fairly, even if you see some team members much more than others? How do you avoid members of your team feeling isolated? What can you do to make all players feel part of the team’s objectives and perform according to plan? Which aspects do you find most challenging when your team is spread around the world? Do you believe diverse groups spread around the world will increasingly be the way we will work in the future? 

(Video: HarvardBusiness – Pictures: World Economic Forum)

79 thoughts on “Can you lead multicultural groups spread around the world?

  1. Since I am part of the international tax team in our consultancy outfit, I constantly deal with colleagues from other country. We together serve a client and has to ensure that the global service is seamless.
    It helps if the team leader of the project makes sure everyone understands his or her scope of work in the project clearly. Frequent calls with each other and of course the intra office chat box helps a lot. We all try to accomodate each other. For instance my US colleagues will start their day a little bit early and I will end mine later to have a call.
    I agree the team leader does have a crucial role to play in ensuring that everyone is as motivated to serve the client. For instance, if in Country Z, the client has smaller size operations, but it is a large client in Country A, it is vital that the motivational level of colleagues in both Country Z and A are the same. We need to see our organisation as a global one and not as a local one.
    I do think, cross country teams will be the future, as business entities will continue to spread their markets.

  2. I have managed teams that worked remotely, although not global, they were diverse nontheless. Multicultural or diverse team members working remotely can be challenging. You hit on the nail when you mentioned the need to choose the right individual personal characteristics. Without the right individual success is not likely. Planned and consistent contact is paramount to building cohesion in a team, this type especially. This is a skill set we all will need to learn because the world is (metaphorically) shrinking.
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    1. Yes having the right team members are crucial, isn't it Susan. Agree with you Susan, that when it comes to work and employment the world will keep on shrinking.

  3. I haven't had to work with an international team…yet. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be exposed (on a smaller scale) to working with people from diverse cultural background while in leadership in Toastmasters. It was one of the greatest lessons and I take those lessons into any of my teams. I think the tips listed in the video are right on point. I would add "acknowledging a job well done" too to provide and as incentive to continue to promote productivity and teamwork .
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  4. Well I hope Anne Edmondson (and by the way she does not appear on the Harvard site as a member of faculty) has hands on experience. I have had so many colleagues lecturing in business school about managing international HR who had never left their own country and only spoke their native language, that I am very weary of academic advice on this particular issue.

    1. Good point Michael. That's true not only when it comes to academia but in companies as well, above all in the United States. Personally have the experience of working all over the world and am sure companies are losing money because of this.
      By the way, I can't imagine Harvard would post a video with Anne Edmondson stating that she is a professor at Harvard Business School if she isn't.

  5. since English language is a medial bridge to every one in this world multicultural group can be managed with active peoples with same good spirit of the team.

  6. Glad you are getting involved in launching a global company Pat. And the team leader seems to be doing exactly what she needs to do. By the way, I believe you will enjoy the experience. Have personally led multi cultural teams most of my life and it's a wonderful experience.

  7. A good reminder, Catarina. Those of us who've lived amongst other cultures and managed geographically and culturally diverse teams have, hopefully, learnt these lessons 🙂 and remember that not only language and customs are different, but gestures, too (for example, in the West we nod our head up and down for agreement, whereas in some parts of the world this can me 'No.')

    Tools like inexpensive video-conferencing are enabling much better interaction with remote teams and I see the multi-cultural team becoming the norm.

  8. I haven't lead a team but I have been part of a number of teams Catarina. Apart from self motivation the one characteristic most members have was initiative. Instead of waiting for the team leader to solve issues the members would often get together and work it out.
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  9. I had the opportunity to work as a part of global teamfor a few years and we used video teleconferencing, webcast, office communicator, skype. Some of the lessons I learnt included:

    Try to meet everyone in person at least once.
    Share some personal information like hobbies, family with each other.
    Keep the network going by sharing links to articles of interest to the group (networking should be like banking ie it is important to deposit information rather than withdrawing continually)
    Be cognisant of time differences and consider having turns at being the one who should really be asleep rather than on an international call.
    Learn about the culture and business etiquette of your colleagues.
    Keep the meetings short and sharp, by issuing agendas in a timely manner with objectives clearly defined.
    Try to talk slowly without using colloquialisms (which is very hard for many of us :()
    If you don't understand a particular issue, seek clarification on an individual basis after or prior to a meeting.

    Above all – embrace and enjoy what a wonderful world we live in.


  10. This is a terrific article, and incredibly relevant in today’s working world. There is an elephant hiding in the corner of this room, however; that would be the concept of choosing your team members wisely.

    It would be great to be able to choose your team members, but this is often a luxury that we don’t get. In a multi-cultural and geographically diverse venture, you often have to mesh already established partnerships to work toward a common goal. Most teams have members with different styles of operating and, occasionally, hidden agendas. At best these few people suck valuable energy that should be spent on moving forward rather than placating them or trying to drag them back on the same page with the rest of the group.

    I would love to hear what Ann Edmondson has to say about working with teams that have been randomly assigned. And I would love to hear Catarina’s take on this subject since this problem undoubtedly comes up in Sweden, where there are many European countries working in close proximity, as opposed to the US, where we tend to be more isolationistic. (Is that a real word?)

    Kay in Hawaii

    1. Glad you like my article, Kay. Agree with you about the problem of inheriting people for your team. One of the worst is dealing with someone that complicates everything. It's the same phenomena that you find on social media when a person writes a comment that is as long as a book. You simply haven't got time to read the long "books" such people send saying very little. Another issue is when they only concentrate on their own interest. You have to pay team members very well but beware so that it doesn't become a company run for its employers only.

      Haven't done this kind of work from Sweden. Did it mainly when I lived in London, Britain, between 1990 and 2005.

  11. Glad you like my article, Bethany. Agree with you completely that communication has to be simplified so that it flows easily. Too much bureaucracy complicate and could even have a detrimental affect on results.

  12. I think in addition to traits defined above usually patience, tolerance and perseverance are key skills required to lead a multicultural team. A leader has to understand and overcome inhibitions, reservations and prejudices of his team members in order to truly engage them and drive them towards a common goal.

  13. I have never managed or work with a team. I agree with Anne Edmondson philosophy, but think it is hard to communicate this not only within your country but to other global countries. That is half our problem in the US is no one wants to work as a team. If ideas are offered, no one really listens as I think most do not know how to shut and listen.

    1. Arleen, working with a multicultural team spread around the world is the way forward. Not least because of the US world order i.e. it will be more profitable, good for the world economy and make the banks happy. Interesting that you are of the opinion that team work is a problem in the US.

  14. Although I've been a part of teaming…or teaming on the fly..never internationally. I assume that the iterative step-by step approach as suggested is the best way. Time zones have to present a challenge too. But because there is a growing need for globalized teams in the international marketplace, I think you've provided some great suggestions for those just beginning, or maybe even faltelring
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    1. Thanks, Jacqueline. Multicultural groups spread around the world is the way forward. The most important aspect is to understand what motivates and drives people from different cultures. And believe me, it's not enough to read a book or go on holidays there. You have to live work/study and integrate in a culture that's completely different from your own.

  15. I've always been fascinated by how we interact across different cultures. Even if we are all operating in the same location, motivation varies so greatly. When we introduce isolation to cultural diversity, wow, now that's an interesting and challenging mix. One we are going to increasingly see. To be successful, we will all need to become social anthropologists to some degree and that is a good thing. 🙂
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  16. For about 2 years I was part of a multi-cultural team in an online joint venture. We represented 5 different countries. The leader was fairly adapt at leading the meetings so all our voices were heard. The highlight of that venture was the person from India was in the USA and we actually met in person for a few hours!

    It seems that it's only logical more diverse teams as you describe will evolve with technology as a tool Catarina. Solid advice in your post and the video.
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  17. It makes me tired just thinking about it! The research, the middle of the night communications! I admire your ambition! I had foreign students in my flight school and I learned a lot about their cultures and enjoyed that. Words and customs can be so tricky.

    1. It's not as hard as it sounds, Beth. The difficult part is understanding what motivates and drives people from cultures completely different from your own. You need to live, work/study and integrate in the culture in question to do so.

  18. I spent several years working with geographically dispersed teams – mostly across Canada and the U.S.; sometimes there were members from India, I agree with the comments about the types of team members needed. I think there is also a period of adapting needed for someone who has never worked this way. At their best, dispersed teams offer opportunities to bring different skills and viewpoints together. At their worst, they can have people going off on tangents and working at cross-purposes. Because you lose the natural brainstorming and sharing of information that happens when a team is seated in close proximity, it is important for the leader to make sure opportunities exist for team discussion (teleconferences, discussion forums, etc.) and to encourage individuals to initiate one-on-one discussions with other team members.

  19. I have never lead an international team but have been part of one. It seems to me that the two key elements are an understanding of the cultural differences and an understanding of using those differences to your best advantage.

  20. This is a sticky one. Cultural differences exist even within the same country much less other countries. I think team work can be done, but those leading the teams needs to be aware of the cultural differences before choosing their team members and deciding how to motivate and lead them successfully.
    My recent post Lady Slipper Orchid: At Risk

    1. Absolutely, William. But leading multicultural groups spread around the world is more than just group dynamics. The most difficult issue is to really understand what drives and motivates people from cultures completely different from your own. You have to live, work/study and integrate in such cultures to really understand them. That's why a lot of leaders of such groups fail.

  21. Despite the video is spot on with regard to leading groups spread around the world, I am really missing the essentials of multi cultural groups.
    I agree perfectly on the different headlines mentioned when it comes to create interaction between team members not located at the same site, but the basics behind these activities are quite different.
    I am working with a team including members from US, China, East Europe, Spain and Denmark and even when I use the same terms as mentioned in the video:
    Speak up
    Listen – (remember you have 2 ears and 1 mouth)
    Integrate tasks
    Reflect on ideas
    – everyone of them have different perspectives and different cultural background to do this and here is the challeging part, meaning “how do I get the right understanding of i.e.listening”
    Let me give an excample:
    Starting a project within the group, being presented by the headquarter in Denmark, the different members receive the information with different cultural background.
    Chineese start thinking how they can localize and utilize their local force
    US people start thinking and acting on how they can do it better or take control of the task
    East Europe will start thinking on how they can work around in order to save cost
    Spanish people will be very adaptive and follow strickly what is being informed in order not to take any responsibility
    Danish people that after an introduction, all people will work in the same direction as they have all got the same information.
    So afterwards you have the hard work to use the above head-lines in order to align the activities and fokus on the target, but always have in mind the differences through out the different culture´s

    1. Good, and true, points, Per. Seems we have the same experience. Briefly pointed out the cultural aspects under the headline ” Don’t forget different cultures and values”. That’s the most challenging part. Unless you have lived, worked/studied and integrated in the different cultures the members of your group consists of it will be very difficult to understand what drives and motivates them. When you do understand the different cultures you know that they will react differently to the task being assigned.

      1. I am danish and have been working in Demark for more than 35 years and latest I have been working and living 5 years in Spain and almost every day still I get surprised about the behauvior and the deep cultural difference coming from north to south europe.
        Unfortunatly many leaders think that the other cultures are "stupid" or simply not skilled enough to act like expected.
        The big key in this matter is to understand and respect the culture and develop the ideas based on the fundamental culture. Based on this we get into the key of your question – How to lead multicultural groups based on the individual members spread around the world? This is the huge challenge

  22. I can't say I have experience *leading* multicultural groups, but whenever I work for engineering groups (I worked at MIT and now for Rutgers University) the people are from a wide variety of backgrounds. Fortunately, there is common ground, which is the interest in STEM research. Sometimes I do cultural comparisons in my head.
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  23. I think geographically spread teams have already become reality within current business practice and anyone who ignores that does so to their own detriment. Working within a company that does business all over the world with my own work covering 9 countries with varying cultures and dynamic business practices, I have seen how embracing diversity and understanding culture is key to this new way of doing business. I have also seen some fail due to using a one size fits all approach in global business without being flexible and sensitive to each specific market's set up.

  24. Global teams are here to stay for various companies. My husband often has conference calls at 11 at night so he can meet with team members who are in India. It’s draining and wouldn’t be for me. It’s just a reality of our day and age, but global teams should really do their best to take into consideration how such far-reaching teams can eat into personal time. That to me is one of the biggest issues society faces… how not to work 24/7.

    1. Jeri, I started working with teams all over the world 1990. Absolutely love working like that and I presume your husband does as well. In today’s world employees are expected to be available 24/7 and that will not change. The only way to avoid that is to have your own company. Since the great recession there are thousands of Americans who would be happy, and qualified, to do your husbands job. So the 24/7 thing is something you just have to accept or encourage him to start his own company:-)

      1. Well the hubby is no more, but I’m the one who started their own business. I’ve had clients in London, Portugal, Bulgaria, Thailand, and Germany so the point about being available for meetings is well taken, though I’m glad it’s not an everyday or a weekly thing for me. I firmly believe the part about checking in with team members so they won’t feel isolated. That goes a long way in wanting to get the work done for someone who is on the other side of the planet. I’ve contracted with an education company to edit study guides, but most of the team members are American educators with MAs or PhDs. Meetings have been too few and emails plenty. Lots of confusion was the result at first, but it was a learning curve for the project manager as well.

  25. I have worked remotely for much of my career. The groups I've managed weren't global but they were diverse nonetheless. Regardless, working remotely can be challenging. When you do, choosing the right individuals and personal characteristics is key to making that a success. Without that, success is not likely. Planned and consistent contact is so necessary when building a remote cohesion team. As the world continues to shrink, a skill-set to manage remotely will be absolutely necessary. 🙂
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  26. Catarina — I managed a virtual team in my last agency job. It worked quite well because the members of the team were senior and experienced. The knew their roles and how to get the work done. I believe that younger people need more guidance and the kind of learning you can only get in person. They don't have the experience, in my view, to work effectively by themselves, for while you may be a member of a team, when you hang up the phone or turn off Skype, you are working alone. There is nothing like getting together in a conference room and tossing ideas around and where you get to see the team in action, their body language, their reaction to other people's ideas. It's just more darn fun to be with people!
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    1. True, Jeannette, the more senior and experienced the members of the team are the better. In my experience you need to see the members of the team once in a while to have personal contact.

  27. UK is such a multicultural place that now a days we don't even think that one of our team members may be form a different ethnic background. I love the diversity of my team and respect each others beliefs and customs and take great joy in celebrating some of them with them.
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    1. Yes, I lived in Knigtsbridge for 15 years and it's really multicultural. Also love it. But it's more difficult to lead a multicultural team when they are spread around the world. In the UK they are used to different cultures which is not the case if they have lived their whole life in, say, Iran.

  28. I think it is important to know the culture of the other team members that we work with. In the US, it is so large that people in the south my have different views on processes and projects than people in the north. Clear and regular communication is best to make sure there is a clear goal for the project. And meeting in person at least once a year helps too. Learning and modifying a good system for your business now will help in the future because it is only going to get more global.
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    1. Good points, Sabrina. Just keep in mind that the cultural differences within the US are small compared to people in cultures that are very different from our own when they live in their own country.

  29. I have worked with virtual teams spread across the world and could relate to this article. It does take a bit of time to get used to the environment and learning to communicate. The comment about we in the West often presuming that the way we think applies to all of humanity is bang on. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing that. If you listen to leaders in the U.S., they frequently use terms and analogies derived from sports. These resonate with their American workers, but may be less effective in other cultures.

    1. Agree with you, Donna. Have personally come across a multitude of people all over the world who feel insulted by what Americans have said to them. Not least MBA's from the IMF who started explaining to governments in Africa how their country works. Needless to say that did not go down well.

  30. I do have some experience managing a team that included people in the U.K., in Hong Kong and in Brazil. I found it hardest when you were wroking with someone who you never had any face-to-face contact with. They other thing that I found problematic is that some employees will be troubled by something that is going on, usually something that makes them feel slighted, and you never really know about it because you're mostly working in conference calls. That makes intense listening, one of the behaviors cited by Edmondson, especially important.

    1. Good points, Ken. Another issue is that if you have not lived, worked and integrated in a culture that's very different from your own you will have vast difficulties. Personally find it easy to handle people from the Middle East and Japan because I have lived, worked and integrated there. In China I have not and hence find dealing with Chinese difficult.

  31. It must be incredibly exhausting working with people all over the globe but not at all impossible. The time difference being a major challenge.

    Our experiences and exposure in life shape us, they engineer our ideas which may or may not be well received by others.

    1. Have worked like that most of my life and it's both fun and challenging. It's necessary to have lived, worked and integrated in cultures very different from your own in order to handle people of those nationalities. The Middle East and Japan is hence easy for me. But I find dealing with Chinese people is for that reason difficult.

  32. This is a wonderful post about including other countries and cultures in groups. You included about making sure you understand other cultures and values. Wars have started upon simple misconceptions about other cultures, I can only imagine what damage can be done in business is that occurs.

    1. The vast majority of people in the world do not understand cultures very different from their own. But many believe they do because of having visited a country or social media. Once they get over such misconceptions and live, work and integrate in cultures such as Japan, China and the Middle East they will be able to lead multicultural groups spread around the world.

  33. Catarina — "teaming" is the new reality of the workplace. You don't always have a choice of who is on your team. It helps if you try to develop a one-to-one relationship offline as so many of the team interactions occur online where you can't see their faces or expressions. Get to know each team member by Skype so you see a face behind the name.
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  34. Working remotely can be a real challenge, I've done it for much of my career. And the teams I have had, while they weren't global, they were certainly diverse. To be successful in the situation, I found you really need to pay attention to the personal characteristics and choose the right people for the team or you're bound to fail. Having a skill-set to manage remotely will be necessary in our changing world.
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