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How to Make Multinational Teams More Effective

by Christie Rizk

In a multicultural workplace, misunderstandings happen. If your British manager tells you something is “interesting,” does he really mean the opposite? Why do your Dutch coworkers feel so comfortable talking back to the boss?

Erin Meyer helps companies navigate these subtle cultural cues. In her new book, The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Public Affairs, 2014), the affiliate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD looks at the ways people from different cultures can learn one another’s social cues in professional settings. It all starts with communication, Meyer says—being open about a colleague’s behaviors that might seem different from yours, talking about those differences, and sharing that knowledge with other colleagues. Meyer, who appeared on the 2013 Thinkers 50 “On the Radar” list, recently spoke with strategy+business about how her work can help companies make the most of their global resources.

 

HOW TO LEAD A SUCCESSFUL GLOBAL TEAM


INSEAD professor Erin Meyer discusses how companies can boost the efficiency of their multinational teams by focusing on how they communicate across cultures.

S+B: What type of talent do multinationals need when designing global teams?

Meyer:  The people companies hire for global positions need to be extremely flexible. They need to understand, for example, that in Denmark it motivates people when the boss acts like a facilitator among equals, but in Russia the staff responds better when the boss is clearly in charge. Of course, you’re not going to find someone who knows how to motivate employees in every world culture. Even if you could, trying to adapt to every member of a global team just leads to chaos and inefficiency. What you need is someone who knows when to adapt to different team members’ cultural norms and when to set a strong team culture to supersede those norms and bring everyone onto the same page.

S+B: When looking for managers to lead global teams, how valuable is international experience?

Meyer: I generally see that people who are living in a foreign country react one of two ways: either by learning a lot or by totally shutting out the new culture. The best interview technique to find out if someone is going to be good at working in another country is to ask them, “When you were living abroad, what are some things that you noticed and learned about how people there work differently?” People who are going to be effective will give positive descriptions of what that other culture did differently. But many people, when you ask them that question, will respond by telling you what people from another culture did inappropriately. And that is a sign that those individuals may have more difficulty.

S+B: What are companies doing wrong in their hiring process?

Meyer: One problem that arises—and this often happens with U.S. companies—is that they have a strong American culture in their organization. When they’re in China, for example, and are hiring Chinese employees for their company, they’re choosing the most “American” Chinese talent they can find. Internally, that makes things easier. But it has two clear disadvantages: First, it may make it more difficult for these firms to be close to their customers. I worked with one Brazilian sales director for a big American consulting firm. His explicit communication style and task-based approach was perfect for his American boss, but not at all suitable for his Brazilian clients. Second, people in various parts of the world are trained since childhood to see things differently. It can be a huge advantage to have some team members who see the forest while others see the trees. But if you’ve hired the people who are the most similar to your own culture, then you lose out on the advantage of diversity.

S+B: Are there trade-offs or negative aspects to multiculturalism?

Meyer: The advantage to having people from all over the world on a team is that you may find that you have more innovation and creativity, and that you’re closer to your local markets. The disadvantage is that multinational teamwork is usually a lot less efficient than monocultural teamwork. When we’re all from the same culture, we don’t have to talk about how we work together. We have the same assumptions—we just get to work. If we’re from all over the world, and if we don’t spend time talking about how we’re going to work, we end up wasting a lot of time because we have different assumptions. Global teamwork has big rewards, but it also requires a big investment.

 

Editor’s Note: This is an adapted piece from strategy+business magazine. To read the full article, see “Erin Meyer Can Make Your Global Team Work” Reprinted with permission from the strategy+business website, published by PwC Strategy& Inc. © 2014 PwC. All rights reserved. PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see www.pwc.com/structure for further details.

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