It seemed innocent enough.

A particular Reddit user was about to get married in Japan. What better time to pick up some flowers and present them to the bride-to-be? 

After stopping in a grocery store for a bouquet that looked appropriate, this individual arrived at the house, presented the flowers, and…

…discovered in Japan, this particular species was regarded as funeral flowers.

Maybe we should take these viral internet events with a grain of salt. But it’s plausible enough to give us pause. No matter how good your intentions may be, you still need knowledge of other cultures when leading a global team.

These cultural differences may not always be so stark as Japanese flower customs, true. But even subtle differences can and should affect your management style. 

Here’s how to stay mindful of cultural differences before you bring the wrong flowers to the wedding. Or, in this case, the meeting.

Why You Should Learn Cultural Differences Before You Start

It’s more than the occasional faux pas. About one-third of business travelers admit to some sort of cultural clash, and almost half are worried that a faux pas is just around the corner. And even if you don’t have one grand, embarrassing moment, a subtle difference in the way you manage and the way your remote team expects to be managed can sometimes feel like petting a cat against the fur. It’s not fun for anybody. 

How to avoid it? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you take the time to research the differences in business cultures where your remote team is, you might just come across a nugget or two that will keep you from those cringeworthy moments.

For example, did you know that in Thailand, it’s often a common courtesy to provide advance notice of meeting agendas rather than “spitball and improvise,” as is often the American style?

Or that in Indonesia, open debate and confrontation in a meeting isn’t seen as honest, but as a negative experience?

How much better would it be to know these facts before you begin working with a team from Thailand or Indonesia?

Don’t Assume Your Remote Team Functions Just Like Your Home Team

We speak English in the U.S., and English tends to be one of the most common languages used in business within many countries. So when we hear someone else speaking it, we tend to assume everyone is on the same page. After all, we’re using the same words. Everything else should fall in line, right?

If only.

According to the Harvard Business Review, a U.S.-based team was working with its offices in Thailand. Just as they did with their home team, management sent details for an upcoming meeting just an hour beforehand.

It didn’t go well. The Thai manager explained that in Thai culture, avoiding mistakes is often paramount in a professional setting. Their employees prefer 24 hours of notice before a meeting to adequately prepare. The fast turnaround also made it difficult to keep up with the quickly-spoken English of the U.S. office. And finally, while Americans were used to each other jumping in and interrupting whenever something needed to be said, this was less prevalent in Thai business culture. 

This means Americans often end up dominating meetings without even realizing it.

It might seem most equitable to just treat everyone the same. Why not treat the Thai office just like the U.S. office? Isn’t that an appropriate way to treat everyone: on equal footing? 

The problem is that culture clashes can pop up in unexpected ways. Doing things this way ignores the expectations entrenched in local business cultures. 

L’Oreal, for example, encouraged open and honest debate in its management team—even confrontation. But this style rubbed employees in Mexico and Indonesia the wrong way, where group confrontations became negative experiences. 

Before  on your own leadership style, make sure you’re learning the needs of the team around you.

Eliminate These Cross-Cultural Hiccups Off The Bat

We can’t tell you which cultural changes to be aware of. Maybe you’re in the Netherlands and wondering how to communicate with a team in Vietnam. Or maybe you’re from South America and you want to avoid putting off a remote team in Portugal. Every situation is going to be different.

Even so, there are a few hiccups you can avoid simply by being aware they exist. According to one survey.

  • Meetings: 46% of respondents said that by answering a phone call during a meeting, they committed a blunder that seems to transcend most cultures. One thing is clear: you will rarely go afoul of cultural differences when giving someone your undivided attention.
  • Greetings: 43% of people report getting a greeting wrong at some point. A thumb’s up in one culture could be a rude gesture in another. In Germany, going beyond one firm handshake pump might be holding on a little too long. Bowing is appropriate in Japan, India, Nepal, and other countries, but might not be so intuitive in western cultures who shook hands and even tapped elbows in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Volume of voice: Ever hear the stereotype of the loud, brazen American cowboy? It’s because speaking in a loud tone of voice might express confidence in the United States, but venture into rudeness territory in other countries. In managing a global team, you’ll even have the luxury of adjusting the volume of your microphone, so there’s no excuse here.

Embrace Cultural Differences, Don’t Shy Away From Them

In the United States, we like to think of ourselves as a melting pot. Just throw everybody in the same place and get to work! 

Simple as that, right?

But the Harvard Business Review points out that there’s more responsibility for managers than that in the business world, especially when uniting a business team for the first time. While teams with more cultural diversity are more likely to show openness to creativity, it still requires adequate management to build such a team in the first place.

HBR ran a study of over 5,000 individuals across hundreds of teams. They measured between two categories: personal diversity (age, gender, language, skills, etc.) and contextual diversity (differences in geographic environments). They found that a broad range of contextual diversity accessed “a wider range of contexts, [and] have access to more diverse pools of knowledge and experiences.”

Broader contextual diversity also “allows for more views and perspectives, which aids creativity, decision-making, and problem-solving.”

The question is, how do you achieve it when you’re building a global team? Is it as simple as mixing up groups based on geographical location?

HBR recommends keeping the goal of a project in mind. If a project needs open-mindedness and creativity, a range of different cultural contexts can be powerful. But if a team needs to be collaborating and carrying out the same routines together, it might be better to build as diverse a team as you can within a time zone. 

Build Expectations That Go Beyond Culture

It’s true that you should take culture into account when leading a global team. But this isn’t the only element of your success.

In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Chad Hartnell shared a meta-analysis of over 140 separate studies, comprising 26,000 organizations. While a shared business culture was one element that affected employee behavior, it wasn’t the only one. They also discovered the following organizational influences:

  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Leadership
  • High-performance work practices, including employee incentives
  • Support for training and the development of employee skills and knowledge

In other words, if you’re not seeing the global team performance you want, don’t immediately rush to culture clashes as the culprit. Take ownership and ask yourself if you’ve introduced the systems and support to help overcome some of these cultural differences first.

Best Practices For Managing A Global Team Full Of Cultural Diversity

Anytime the word “global” is involved, there are going to be challenges.

The good news is that you can avoid most of these problems with the right approach. Here are some best practices to keep in mind:

  • Diversity awareness training. On top of doing your own research, you’re also responsible for how your teams develop under you. Employing diversity awareness training will get everyone on the same page and give you a head start for building a globally diverse team. Create a Google Doc, label it “learning culture,” and start taking notes. It’s never too late to start opening your mind to the diversity around you.
  • Watch for blind spots. Sometimes, you won’t commit an obvious faux pas. The differences will be more subtle. The key to managing these? Make notes of the cultural differences you learn. Some people report that when working with teams in Japan, there tends to be more deference to the seniority of the manager. This means you may hear less feedback than you’re accustomed to out of western team members. Make note of this and make sure you reach out appropriately to gauge everyone’s feelings.
  • Create technological touchstones. You may be in different time zones, but if everyone has the same basic pages bookmarked, you’re halfway to uniting a team. A Trello board is a great way to get started building common team knowledge.

Cultural differences don’t have to be intimidating. With a strong organization—and thoughtful leadership from you—there should be more that unites us than divides us.

How to stay mindful of cultural differences when leading a global team