Leading cross cultural teams in today's global marketplace

Yan Bello, PMP, SpaceMinds


Today's business is global, with many companies having locations around the world and others using resellers, partners, consultants, or subcontractors to deliver products and services wherever needed. In all cases, being able to communicate effectively and in the manner expected at each location is critical and often overlooked. There is a natural assumption that any good communicator will be equally as successful when communicating with people from another country and culture. Communicating without sensitivity to another country's culture, norms, and values often leads to misunderstandings, frustration, and a lack of motivation. How do you learn to communicate across cultures? How do you create value and synergies across distances? This paper provides insights into best practices from global operations, consultants, and project leaders gathered from personal interviews.


The current workplace is no longer defined by its brick-and-mortar walls; its boundaries are as far reaching as the other side of the world. Time zone differences no longer hamper productivity as resources often take advantage of the 24-hour clock in delivering to expectations. Managing a global workforce is challenging, interesting, rewarding, and frightening at times. Knowing how to motivate resources from other cultures is something that must be learned in order for a global leader to be successful. What are the challenges managing a global workforce or team presents? How does a global leader motivate a team that lives and works in a variety of countries? What are the nuances and complexities a global leader must understand in this 24-hour-a day-workplace?

Global teams include people who come from different cultures and have unique experiences that companies often do not stop to consider. These differences may be seen in cultural communications styles and their frames of reference. One example of a cultural difference may be that in some countries non-exempt employees spend approximately 50 hours or more per week working. Their day is not eight hours in length but more often it is a 10- or 12-hour day where working remotely from home is a part of the job. On the other hand, a non-exempt worker in England, Germany, or France may not work a minute over 8 hours and their mobile devices may be turned off when they leave the office. What issues can these work ethic differences have on a global team? How do global teams find out about one another's work practices and cultures when they are distributed around the world and may never meet one another?

Nuances and Complexities

Leading and managing distributed resources in today's workplace means understanding the nuances and complexities globalization has imposed. This means that resources may reside in many locations and in order for work to be completed it may require using staff or contractors from around the world. An example may be a United States based software development company that needs Flash programmers for a project and realizes using local resources is often too expensive. The company finds a partner organization in India that specializes in Flash development and contracts this work through them. The nuances and complexities now become apparent as the manager tries to explain to the contracted organization the scope of work and the final deliverable.

Explaining what is expected means understanding Indian cultural nuances. Part of the nuances is understanding that the Indian manager may be trying to build a relationship with the manager and therefore commits to the work even though he does not really understand what he has committed to do.

The manager assumes that because the Indian manager said, “yes”, he explained the requirements clearly enough and will receive work based on his expectations. Unfortunately, the Indian developer concludes the work according to the local manager's understanding of the scope and requirements. The work is delivered and the software development company manager receives something he did not expect. There is a miscommunication between what each party understands is the expectation for the deliverable that stems from a cultural nuance in communication and understanding. This nuance may be that the complexity of the work may not have been explained in a way that resonated with the Indian manager because the U.S. manager did not understand the Indian cultural subtleties. The manager may not have taken the time to build a relationship for mutual trust, to understand that “yes” does not always mean agreement and therefore miscommunication occurred. Or at a cognitive level, both managers understand the word “commitment” but have different appreciations and values relating to the consequences of establishing and keeping a commitment against clear or unclear (depending on your perspective) expectations.

An added complexity due to globalization and today's modern information technology is the volume, diversity, and intensity of communication channels and information sources (i.e. number of e-mails that people receive and are expected to read daily, large number of websites writing about an issue/topic, etc.). In this global collaboration landscape, a large amount of information gets updated and shared around the clock. Because of the 24-hour nature of today's communications and availability of information, some people in the team might be sleeping while the information they need for their work is awake and alive in another part of the world. This may increase the number of messages that normally come in everyday, for example.

Some people say that they receive over 150-300 e-mails daily and cannot possibly read and understand them all. When asked how they manage this, they say they read only the ones from people they directly work with and leave the others that seem informational only unread. Do the emails that come from global team members stay in the priority to be read (especially considering their direct boss is locally based and not necessarily the person sending the message)? Why are people wasting their time sending e-mails that may never be read nor? Why do the receivers not ask to be removed from the information-only distribution list? Are critical emails not being read and responded to in a timely manner? These are important questions that must be addressed when managing a global team.

Another complexity is that the demand for real-time information has increased. People based in different locations and/or time-zones need access to the same information when working together in a global team. How have companies accommodated this need when resources are scattered around the world? The demand for real-time information has also increased the need for performance measurement tools. Measuring the effects of the demand and response on business is increasingly important. In addition, technology innovation has increased the demand for new and better ways of communicating with one another. Exhibit 1 shows the rate of technology adaptation that is impacting global business and increasing organizational complexity.

Geoffrey Moore (2005)

Exhibit 1 Geoffrey Moore (2005)

Turning Global Differences into a Source of Value

With companies having a presence around the world, their operations have become truly global. In some cases, in order to support different time zones, companies employ evening or early morning shift workers. An example of this is a support center in the Philippines managing calls that may be from a time zone that has a 10-18 hour difference.

This work schedule differentiation has major implications for global teams with resources around the world. One implication is the need for enough real-time communications to ensure the teams have what they need when they need it or to clarify information—even emailed information. The need for real-time communications is complicated by the time-zone differences; deciding on the best time for a conference call or online chat is not always easy. Reaching beyond each country's frame of reference means understanding inconveniences that could occur with distributed resources. This often means being sensitive to concessions a team member may make so that others are not inconvenienced.

An implication of change is the effect on leadership and the ability to lead across cultures. It is not uncommon for an excellent engineer to be promoted to a leadership role without any guidance or training. This person may try very hard to be a good leader, but is lacking the fundamental skills and knowledge surrounding quality leadership. The result is that untrained leaders often do not know how to engage others, and find that in order to accomplish things they do it themselves. With the new demand to lead globally, people who already have difficulty leading in their home countries must now interface and influence people in cultures to which they have never been exposed and do not understand.

The opposite of this is a leader who knows what needs to be done and makes things happen. This leader can see reality, size up a situation, and make appropriate and needed decisions. Leaders are the change agents, the people who know what and when change should be done and how to support the change. They are tasked with motivating people and helping them to be more effective in their work. One of the most significant things leaders do is to model the way things are done. A leader shows good judgment by making quality decisions, inspiring others, challenging the way things have been done, and enabling others to act and be successful (Merriam, 1998, pp 123-124).

John Kotter (1999) suggests that leadership is about coping with change especially in today's competitive and stressful economy. As Kotter (1999, pp 18-20) seems to indicate, more change always demands more leadership.

The lack of good leadership has both short- and long-term effects on global organizations. Short-term effects are that the quantity of work produced could be lower than anticipated, staff motivation may be low, and all parties are discouraged by the lack of good communication. Long-term effects may be that the organization loses its window of opportunity in its market because the team has no leader, it has no cohesion, and expected projects are delayed or incomplete. Other indications of poor leadership are that customers do not receive the support they desire because the staff is not experienced or motivated to support an angry customer. Or perhaps, the lack of cultural / local know-how prevents the team from being sensitive to a relevant issue for a client. The ultimate challenge is how a global leader can turn global differences into an effective source of value creation.

Many Tools, Little Communication

At a PMI San Francisco Bay Area Chapter meeting, the attendees were talking about how tethered people are to communication devices and how commonplace it is to receive instant communications. Discussion arose about the positive and negative effects of these devices and whether or not communication has improved as a result. Many said that they use e-mail or online chat frequently, and that both are considered robust communications tools. Some noted that, unfortunately, many people tend to send short, convoluted messages that leave the recipient questioning what action to take. They added that often the message is unclear, and that the recipient could totally misinterpret it. Some people said that there is no real protocol shared among users as to how to compose a message or how to respond. One person said he sends return receipts on e-mails and assumes that people read them if he receives a confirmation of receipt. He later said that he realizes this only means they have opened it. Someone else said that he thought a quick response told the sender that he read it and would take some kind of action. Everyone agreed these types of communications often are either unanswered or misinterpreted. This discussion could have occurred anywhere in the world as the preponderance of communications vehicles and devices does not mean communications is any more effective.

Audio conferencing has been used for years, and now using computer-to-computer applications for this as well as video has become important in global teams. Often, these tools as well as online training webinars are used within a company or for or an online shared desktop presentation. These desktop communications tools can mean that people may not be dedicated to the call and are doing something else. Have these communications tools cause us to modify the importance and relevance of our current situation? Does this mean people cannot differentiate between priorities as well as importance and relevance?

Personal communications devices abound with mobile handheld multipurpose phones, Bluetooth headsets, wireless computers, and global positioning devices, yet people still are not communicating well. Perhaps it is more fundamental than having a platform; perhaps it is that we do not know how to communicate clearly or that we do not know what to communicate. Some people are afraid that the information could get into the wrong hands and prove fatal to themselves or their organization. An executive from a large software company once said that the reality of what most employees can access is not confidential information. He added that about 3% of company information truly is classified and confidential, and therefore we should not be afraid of sharing information. So it appears that people have difficulty in knowing what to communicate and maybe even assume that others already have the information. They may assume that if they have it, so will others.

When managing a global project, having current information about the project is essential. Research has shown that e-mail is often the first choice for global team communication. E-mail is a universal tool and, with today's “any place and any time” business practice, it provides communication and documentation of a message (Mayer, 2010, pp 21-75). The use of e-mail helps to overcome some of the barriers that distance creates. People check e-mail multiple times during the day because they realize that vital information can be transmitted in this media. Does this mean they understand what and how to communicate? Exhibit2 shows that email and other communication can be delivered around the world and to a variety of devices.

The Internet has become a vital communication tool for daily work, such as file transfer protocol (FTP) for sharing files, web conferencing for visual communication, and search engines for finding information or conducting research rapidly. Some Internet sites are vital for collaboration as each team member can add to or change a document, conduct a conversation over a VoIP phone, or participate in an online blog or wiki for ongoing thought-sharing. Instant conversations have also changed from just voice calls to computer chat sessions or mobile text messaging. Do these tools allow us to communicate well or just easier?

Digiprove©, Norman (2010)

Exhibit 2 Digiprove©, Norman (2010)

Clear Communications

Technology and network access points allow for connection, but the bigger issue of the lack of clear communications remains. There is an assumption that the existence of technologies means improved communication quality. These technologies aid communication, but if the people conducting these communications do not have the right skills, the quality of their communications will not improve. Thus, the best tools and technologies cannot ensure quality communications. Agreements must be made to ensure communications best practices are put in place to deliver the expected improved communications. It is the combination of technologies and quality messages that allow for success in communications.

Communications is one of the most important components in designing, organizing, managing, and leading global teams. It is critical to the success of most projects, whether handled by a dedicated project team, a cross-departmental team, or a globally dispersed project team. It is important for global leaders to build communications plans that incorporate technologies and best practices for disseminating information at the right time to the right audience.

Elements of a project communications plan strategy may include:

  • Planning the kickoff meeting;
  • Developing clear roles and responsibilities of the team;
  • Identifying project status meetings and frequency;
  • Identifying project communications (e-mail, chat, video);
  • Determining the level of detail to the level of management;
  • Developing communications standards;
  • Developing a plan for transitioning from deployment to operations;
  • Debriefing the project.

A well-planned project has a communication strategy and a plan. Sample communications plans are presented in Exhibit 3. They show what, who, why, and when communications might occur and be managed.

Technical Project Communications Plan (Mayer, 2010 p11)

Exhibit 3: Technical Project Communications Plan (Mayer, 2010 p11)

Managing & Leading Global Cross Cultural Teams

Effectively leading and managing global cross-cultural teams means that team members (both internal and external) can be effective and contribute significant value despite distance, culture, language, and other differences. It is not uncommon to be part of a flexible multidisciplinary team where different tools and communication vehicles are deployed, such as laptops, Smartphones, cell phones, wireless access, and LAN infrastructure, which allow e-mail, voicemail, texting, chats, video, and web-enabled databases to be used to conduct business. Global teams can be homogenous and within a company, can have subcontractors, or can be aligned across companies (Maznevski & Chudoba, 2000, pp 6-20). Global teams have been successful when:

▪   There is a thorough understanding of the project's objective and the benefits to the organization, and the problem that they are solving is clarified;

▪   Team members follow through on objectives and milestones with the understanding of how each group delivers benefit to the project;

▪   Team members exchange information, share dependencies, and provide assistance to one another as needed; and

▪   The team provides a current snapshot of the project for stakeholders, along with issues and challenges.

If communications are inconsistent, fragmented, or out-of-context, confusion sets in. These types of communications briefly identify a problem and expect a resolution quickly, often without necessary details. In reality, problems require research, analysis, discussion with others, and critical thinking to come to a quality resolution. Misunderstandings develop because assumptions and expectations are not identified and stated. Most often a phone call, online chat, or in-person meeting is required to discuss the pros and cons of various solutions.

Global teams have a common issue: time zone differences. This means that real-time meetings must be carefully coordinated, and constraints, such as time of day and day of the week, considered. Morning for one location can be evening for another; Sunday for one location may be Monday for another. A global leader must understand and consider who and how often someone may be inconvenienced. Time zone differences also include loyalty conflicts. What if the entire team is distributed? Teams from large, international companies or from different companies working together often result in team members' loyalties being conflicted: Are they loyal to the team or to their company? In other cases, team members indicate that their alliances are stronger with other employees in their own locations rather than the distributed team (Armstrong, 2002, pp 34-40).

Many teams have members located in multiple time zones, and in those cases, communication and response expectation must be considerations. In many instances, multiple time zones can work to a company's benefit. This could mean that a task is started in Australia, is picked up by a team member in Switzerland, and is completed by another team member in the U.S. This global teamwork can be very effective for managing resources and meeting tight deadlines.

In global teams, taking cultural diversity into consideration is almost always critical, and can become very problematic if not properly anticipated and addressed. Team members from different cultures have different ideas, beliefs and values around similar concepts and daily experiences. For example, an apparently inoffensive joke might cause one team member to laugh from ear to ear, while another becomes irritated or does not understand. A few years ago, an online publisher was having his Flash programming done by his India-based team members. He wanted the pages to have a library feeling and a wizard introducing the viewer. This information was given to the India programmers and they set to work. When they sent back their work, the publisher was not pleased; the library did not look at all familiar and the wizard looked quite unusual. He assumed that the developers from India had the same cultural experiences that he had, and they clearly did not. Knowing one another's cultural norms is essential when working on global teams.

Multicultural differences add to time zone challenges. In many countries, there are formal reporting hierarchies where casual communication with managers is not acceptable. As an example of another cultural difference, in Asia teams are praised, rather than individual team members sought out. Cultural differences also occur on teams located within the same country. Often team members located away from headquarters may wish to be left alone to complete their work, while those in the hub of corporate activity may wish more inclusion. It is critical that culture be considered when managing globally, as it translates into personal style, national and organizational culture, and even industry norms. What might seem normal in one industry may be totally unfamiliar in another. This may be seen in how messages are written and interpreted based on language, culture, assumptions, experience, and expectations.

A global project manager must also think about how a statement or question said in his language may be misinterpreted by another language speaker. A good example is how we ask questions. In the Unites States, questions are asked and almost instantaneous answers are expected. Often the audience has English as a second language. This means that a question may be analyzed in terms of: What is really being asked? For example, a Japanese friend said that he examines the words used to see if he understands what is wanted and often wonders if there is more to the question than he understands, and will be committing himself to. He translates the question into Japanese to see if he can answer it or if he needs additional information. He added that the person who asked the question is waiting for an answer and he feels that he may not be able to truthfully answer it without further research. What does he do? This situation is especially true when a project manager asks yes or no questions. Not wanting to disappoint the person asking may pose a dilemma. Instead of asking yes or no questions, global managers should ask what the person already has on his plate. For example, ask, “What projects are you currently working on that could affect your availability on this one”? This shows you are trying to understand his situation and therefore he can better help you with yours. This technique is also useful when building plans together.

It is very important to develop a communications strategy and share this with others. Setting the right expectations at the beginning allows people to know what will be coming, when, and in what form, and to what level of detail communications is required. Putting such a plan in place relieves the burden of remembering who needs to have access to information, whether they have the information, or how to share critical issues and ask for help when needed.

Virtual Teams Leadership: a Significant Entrepreneurial Competency

Both authors have experienced virtual teaming—the ability and competence to effectively organize and lead global, virtual teams. Leading global teams is a source of significant value creation and allows for synergies to be generated at a distance. This competent, virtual leader can nourish inexperienced but talented resources.

This virtual leadership competency has been valuable not just for business projects, but also an important venue to conduct global research on how embracing technology improves the chances of success for distributed project teams (Mayer, 2010). Mayer interviewed global project leaders and found that the more technologically astute the team, the more flexible. They could communicate via chat on demand or have prescheduled meetings, using email and online conferencing to work together by sharing screens and information.

An appreciation on the entrepreneurial value of virtual team leadership can come from within our own global community of project management. In fact, with its fast growing rate, there is no doubt that PMI has become a global multi-cultural professional organization. With its international scope and rapidly growing size, PMI faces challenges such as that of properly attending to the needs of different cultures, languages, and dialects in the profession's standards.

It is in this context that PMI had the ambitious goal to make its global standards available in many languages. For example, the 3rd Edition of the PMBOK® Guide was translated into 11 languages. One case of successful virtual multicultural voluntary knowledge-based projects was the Spanish Translation and Verification Committee of the PMBOK(r) Guide (3rd edition) chaired by one of the authors. This project was successfully delivered ahead of time (early) and involved 31 participants from 11 countries who worked virtually and never met face to face in one place. Virtual multicultural voluntary knowledge-based projects such as these are the results of effectively integrating virtual, global teams composed of competent and knowledgeable people who have voluntarily decided and committed to participate and contribute their knowledge and skills to the project (Bello, 2006 pp 8)

We can therefore confidently affirm that whether leading projects in business, research, or in volunteer-based communities, global cross-cultural, global team leadership is a definitive value-added competency for any project leader and/or entrepreneur.


Leading any team requires an understanding of team dynamics, clear communications techniques, and the desire to actually lead. Managing a global team magnifies the need for these abilities and supports leadership, as well as providing an avenue for career growth. This may seem trivial, but unless each person embarking on global team leadership understands that the team is the main focus, he or she will fail—as will the team and potentially the project. Here are some things to consider doing when embarking on global team leadership:

  • As a leader, build a vision and set the direction considering cultural differences, and set goals with team member participation.
  • Encourage brainstorming and feedback to obtain buy-in from people in distributed locations.
  • Develop a strategy to achieve the project objectives, and have team members participate on its feasibility.
  • Communicate the vision, goals, and directions to the team.
  • Develop a communications plan to identify who, what, when, and how communications will be disseminated.
  • Become sensitive to other cultures in terms of communicating by understanding their environment and how they interact with one another.
  • Organize online sessions using technology tools, such as a project repository or website, that show the vision, goals, directions, and plans.

Global leadership is not for everyone; it is much more complex then leading domestic teams. A global leader must be extremely well organized and supportive, strong and collaborative, and willing to make the extra effort global teams require. These leaders must be really good communicators, facilitators, and problem solvers because distributed resources will expect this capability. Global resources just want to do their work; they expect the leader to manage everything else that comes up. Managing a global team means learning about other cultures and norms, helping people take on self leadership, and knowing that the complexities of global leadership have been mastered. If this is for you, congratulations for joining the ranks of global leaders of the 21st century!


Armstrong, D. & Cole, P. (2002). Managing distances and differences in geographically distributed work groups. In Hinds, P. and Kiesler, S. Distributed work (pp.167 – 186) Cambridge, MA: Massachusettes Institute of Technology

Bello Méndez, Yan. Bau S., Muntsa (2006). “The Making Of…” the new Spanish (Castilian) Edition of the PMBOK® Guide. Proceedings of PMI Global Congress EMEA 2006, Madrid, Spain.

Kotter, J. (1999). What Leaders Really Do, Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Maznevski, M. & Chudoba, K. (2000). Bridging space over time: Global virtual team dynamics and effectiveness, Organization Science, 11(5), 473-492.

Mayer, M. (2010). The virtual edge: Embracing technology for distributed team success, second edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Merriam, S. (1998). Case studies. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Approach (pp 36-38). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Moore, G, (2005). Dealing with Darwin: How great companies innovate at every phase of their evolution. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Norman, F. (2010). Comparing communications mediums in cross cultural team communication [Digiprove© Electronic Version]. Retrieved from: http://intpmcomms.com/?p=723

© 2012 Dr. Margery Mayer, Yan Bello, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings, Marseille, France



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