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What Working With International Teams Has Taught Me

Working with international colleagues has strongly influenced the People practices that I have built and managed throughout my career. Let's dive into the benefits and challenges, and how it shaped me into a more empathetic leader.

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Jan 17, 2024
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Last updated on Apr 24, 2023

Traveling internationally is a passion of mine and has allowed me to grow as an individual and see the world from a new perspective. It has allowed me to have amazing experiences like going inside a pyramid in Egypt and learning history first hand rather than just in textbooks. I quickly learned while traveling in Denmark and Sweden that every nordic country has claims to discovering the United States of America! Working with international teams however, has opened my eyes to new perspectives, challenged my way of thinking and has helped me to become a stronger, more empathic People Leader. 

Working with international colleagues has strongly influenced the People practices that I have built and managed throughout my career.  Specifically it has helped me develop better ongoing feedback techniques and leadership training programs. It has been a great way to gain new perspectives, insights about different cultures, ways of thinking, and working styles.

Here are some of the many benefits I have experienced.

  • Increased Productivity & Creativity: Diversity of thought breeds creativity and drives innovation, helping to solve problems and meet employee needs in new and exciting ways.Your coworkers will come up with ideas that would never have crossed your mind, and you’ll do the same! Thanks to your different experiences, you’ll all have completely different mindsets, which will allow for some incredibly interesting ideas. The more ideas you can think of, the better! Your coworkers will not only pitch in with their personal experiences, they’ll also teach you about what works in their own environment. 

  • New Problem Solving Techniques: Diversity breeds healthy competition, stretching a team in a positive way to achieve their best. This atmosphere of healthy competition can lead to the optimization of company processes for greater efficiency. When you work with people from different backgrounds, you will be exposed to many different approaches to problem-solving from silent meetings to stand up loud debates. This can help you learn new techniques and methods that you may not have otherwise been exposed to.

  • Better Communication: You increasingly learn how to communicate clearly and directly, because with international colleagues, there are even more ways that things can be misinterpreted. You learn to avoid using slang and abbreviations when speaking or writing to an international colleague, especially at first. Chances are they are not going to understand what you’re saying and it will only slow down communication. Remember that the key is to know that everyone has good intentions and its important to clear up any miscommunications as soon as possible.

  • Never assume that everyone is on the same page: Its important to establish what common business terms mean as a team so everyone can get aligned. For example, being “on time” can mean different things to different people. Every culture defines punctuality differently. It is often helpful to define internal cultural norms, playbooks or office “house” rules for everyone to get on that same page.  We tend to make a lot of assumptions about working norms, but they vary between countries, teams and locations.

While I have experienced many benefits associated with a culturally diverse workplace, there are also many challenges that I have come across while leading the People function. Here are a few challenges I have experienced with a culturally diverse work environment and my advice after experiencing all of these personally.

  • The Language Barrier: When your colleagues speak different languages, it is very easy to misunderstand each other, especially because pronunciations can cause confusion.  Being remote and on zoom makes it even more difficult without social cues. My advice is never feel too shy or uncomfortable to ask someone to repeat the sentence and elaborate. It will save you from making costly mistakes and show your teammate that you are really making an effort to do your best at understanding them.

  • The Cultural Differences:Things that are normal or routine in one culture can be totally unacceptable in another culture. A person cannot possibly be aware of all the cultural specifics of another person, and sometimes people unintentionally make inappropriate comments or behave in a way someone is not accustomed to.  My advice is ask questions about your coworkers traditions and lifestyle. Be thoughtful of how you work with them and give it time, eventually you will navigate the best way to respectfully communicate.  At one company we created Cultural Tedtalks where colleagues from different cultures could present on their cultural norms or specific traditions, which really helped with understanding (and was fun)!

  • We all have cultural stereotypes: Negative cultural stereotypes can be seriously detrimental to company morale and affect productivity. And while outright prejudice or stereotyping is a serious concern, ingrained and unconscious cultural biases can be a more difficult challenge of workplace diversity to overcome.  We all want to be one team, one mission but that is difficult on an individual level. My advice is take time to understand what stereotypes you have about different cultures and try to disprove them through your interactions.  If you feel comfortable, talk openly with your colleagues about them, as this could help you overcome them.

  • Be aware of non-verbal communication: Non-verbal communication is a delicate and nuanced part of cultural interaction that can lead to misunderstandings or even can be offensive between team members from different countries. Things like comfortable levels of physical space, making or maintaining eye contact, and gesturing can all be vastly different across cultures. My advice is watch for coworkers reactions to make sure they are not uncomfortable when interacting with them. You can always ask them as well.  When I worked in France, my coworkers would ask if it was ok to greet me with a kiss on a cheek or if I prefer a handshake, which I greatly appreciated.

Cultural and language barriers can cause frustrations when there are miscommunications. Don’t let emotions take over. Think about the company as a whole and how you truly are one team, and use the most appropriate processes to drive for it. For example, when making company announcements, remember that email does not convey the speaker’s emotions and limits the possibility to ask questions and elaborate on the topics being discussed. It can be very easy to misinterpret what someone means in an email. Video conferencing the team, hearing their tone, seeing their non-verbal cues and asking questions can alleviate problems caused by a language barrier.

If you feel something is not getting done correctly, make an effort to understand the other person and think about the best way to communicate with them. Don’t expect that your way of approaching work is the only option. Explain your reasoning and make the communication person-oriented, and you will be surprised by the level of understanding you will receive in return.

Working with colleagues from other countries and cultures can at times be challenging, but it is so rewarding when you can learn from each other and open your eyes to other ways of life. Working with multiple cultures is a truly enriching experiencing, allowing everyone to learn about perspectives and traditions from around the world. Bonding over similarities and differences can help you to become a truly global leader and help you abandon prejudices or an ethnocentric world view—something that is increasingly valuable. A diverse set of colleagues is professionally enriching—exposing you to new skills and approaches to work, and developing an international network that can take your career in exciting new directions.

Want to continue the conversation? Reach out to Lynn here.

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