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The number of international teams is growing rapidly as companies reorganize to compete in the
global marketplace. The influence of the different cultures makes the interpersonal interaction in
the team more complicated than within teams of one nationality. It affects the way the team
works together, especially if the team is spread out across different countries. Each team is
unique. High performance cannot be captured in a ready-made formula for how to create
synthesis between imaginary French, Japanese, Taiwanese and Russian team members. High
performance is created through channelling the forces at play.
In companies such as ABB, Unilever, the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation, GEC
Alsthom, Alcatel, Royal Dutch/Shell group and IBM, a matrix of international teams is already
in place. In other companies such as Daimler Benz, Fiat, The Kone Corporation, Westpac and
The Broken Hill Proprietary Company, international teams are being used to shift the dominance
of the headquarter national cultures.
Mixed nationalities in a team can bring richer and more appropriate solutions.
They can broaden a manager's interpersonal skills and contribute towards creating a companywide network. However they can also bring increased communication difficulties, interpersonal
conflicts and substantially higher costs. When do the costs outweigh the benefits? Do some
mixes of nationalities work together better than others? In reality, the exact mix of nationalities is
seldom chosen, it emerges as a by-product of the task. Most people are chosen because they have
the necessary country knowledge, responsibilities or technical expertise to complete the task. The
extra expense is a constraint the team has to work within. Some teams are having difficulties,
other teams are very successful; what is the difference? Companies need to know and learn.
There are lessons for the managers who create the teams; there are considerations about working
at geographical distances and there are lessons for the team members and leaders.
As with any team, the first task is to choose a group of people who incorporate, as a group, the
skills necessary to complete the task. In an international team, there is also a need for a common
working language and sufficient shared goals. There are the added dangers of vested national
interests and historical regional competitiveness.

The next most important and difficult tasks are to "bust the bureaucracy" and to find an adequate
budget. International teams benefit the company as a whole and tend to threaten individual
fiefdoms. If country managers need to be persuaded to second one of their best people for a few
years, help from higher up the organization may need to be called in. There are also "part-time"
teams which meet every month or so. They often run in addition to and parallel with, the work
that the individuals are paid, evaluated and promoted for. Extra finances need to be found to
support the extra costs that the geographical distances will create. When a manager starts looking
for appropriate people, a common retort from other country managers is "So long as I do not
have to pay the airfares and it doesn't interfere with the work they are already doing here, yes,
they can join your team; in fact they may learn something".
A geographically dispersed team needs to develop a realistic balance between joint team
meetings and the work done in between. At the beginning it is important for the team to meet
each other in order to agree what they are doing and to meet later in the project to argue and
review decisions. Sharing information and implementing action can be done at a distance. One
manager who was put in charge of a team that had never met, but "dialogued" over fax, phone
and e-mail, had a nervous breakdown. It does not work. Effective group techniques can shorten
team meetings and e-mail and computer networks can improve and lighten communication
between meetings. Both involve the company in making an initial investment.
After setting the overall objectives, giving a time frame and direction, the overall manager must
be available to the team to give advice and remove unforeseen obstacles. Initially this means
explaining how and why the team is being set up and its role within the rest of the company. The
manager should also make the team aware of possible imbalances and encourage them to work
around them.
Nationality, as represented by what passport you carry, is not a variable that is important in
international teams. The importance of national culture is that it can have a moderating influence
on a number of other factors, e.g. attitudes, values, behaviours, expectations, background and
common language fluency. If the team members are representing different countries they can
also be affected by the status of the organization within that market, by the size of the market
share, by belonging to the acquired company as opposed to the acquirer or by historical
difficulties between one market or function and another.

A European marketing strategy team may be made up of peer marketing managers each from a
different European country operation. The team is balanced in nationalities. However if the
headquarters are in the UK, is there a subtle weighting that the UK marketing manager will have
more influence than the others? Is there a subtle hierarchy based on the size of operations in each
country? If there is a subgroup of people from the headquarters, will they dominate the others?
Innovative ideas often start away from the vested interests and bureaucracy of the centre.
The interpersonal dynamics and communication patterns will be more complicated in an
international team than in a nationally uniform team. The team leader will need sensitive group
management skills and an understanding of the cultural differences at play. Should these "group"
skills override technical skills as the criteria for selecting the leader? Both cultural influences and
the nature of the task will play a role.
A charismatic multilingual French manager was asked to bring a number of long established
independent European bakery firms under one brand name. He used his many languages and
interpersonal skills to cajole, negotiate, persuade, and create ultimatums to bring the team
together. His technical baking skills were not called for.
Teams with a co-ordinating task need a leader with good administrative skills. The leader of a
transatlantic R&D team will need a high level of technical research skills as well as
administrative and interpersonal skills. Team leaders may also be chosen because they have the
highest level of influence to sell the outcomes to the rest of the organization. However in some
instances, the cultural norms may influence the choice. In Germany and Japan a very high
premium is usually put on the leaders' technical skills. That is how they earn the respect of the
team. In Italy or Chile the premium can be on the status and influence that the manager holds
within the organization.
In choosing a team leader, it is important to remember that the leader must act as a role model. In
two existing international top teams, both CEO's dominate the interaction. Both are appreciated
for their executive abilities and for turning their respective companies around from negative
positions. The Finnish CEO managing a Finnish/UK merger stresses team spirit, common
language, consensus through debate. He encourages managers to participate in the debates
outside their areas of responsibility and to tell him when he is wrong. The Italian CEO managing
an Italian/US merger tends to work one-to-one with a small number of Italian colleagues; the
large top team meeting is a place to share these decisions. The few US managers expected
decisions to be made through debate and are disappointed. English is the agreed common
language, however, when the argument becomes lively, it tends to happen in Italian, not English
and the Americans feel left out.


Managers creating the teams must also consider the implementation of the teams' findings. In a
large international drinks company a taskforce has been set up to cut costs within an 18-month
time frame. As it was likely that most of the production cuts would be made in Italy, it was a
sensible move to appoint an Italian finance expert to the team; the best person to sell the bad
* Choose the people with the best skills and knowledge to both plan and implement the task.
* Assess the costs, double them and find the money from within the organization.
* Remove the bureaucratic barriers and if necessary seek higher support in the organization.
* Involve the team members' managers in the process. Persuade them to include the team
outcomes in the members' performance evaluation.
* Share the reasons why people have been chosen and the possible imbalances that they should
be aware of and work around them.
* Offer training and support in group skills if necessary.
* Explain the influences of national cultures. Offer training and support in using intercultural
differences to create value to themselves and the outcome.
* Match the leader to the task and make all the team members accountable for the outcomes.
* Give clear terms of reference, time scales and direction and be available if the team needs you.
In the Finnish case above, although the headquarters are based in Finland, only the CEO and the
financial controller are based there. The other three top vice-presidents were free to choose any
European headquarters as their operating base. It works because there is a high level of trust and
a very disciplined communication pattern. Every month they have a board meeting at one of the
regional headquarters or company offices somewhere in the world. Between meetings they have
a telephone conference every Monday to share information and conduct a very organized set of
telephone conferences for the company results every month. The benefit of being geographically
dispersed is that the top team is always out in the company, encouraging networking and crossfertilization and bringing a first-hand knowledge of events to the board meetings.

Only full-time special purpose teams tend to be located together. Otherwise managers operate as
a team from their different bases and meet at regular intervals. The administrative, travelling and
communication costs are likely to have been underestimated. If the company does provide the
increased budget, they will expect a special return and very high performance. What is the best
use of the teams' time?
The team will need to come together to establish a common orientation and to agree common
objectives and goals. In this initial stage they also need to create a common language and to "get
a feel for where each one is coming from", to discover the strengths and weaknesses of the team
and to explore the different expectations around the style and depth of team interaction.
Having established some degree of interpersonal comfort and agreed their goals, the team can
then work at a distance to collect information, share information, clarify tasks and implement the
decisions agreed. In some cultures, nothing is taken seriously unless it is written down. In others,
people do not feel they have communicated until they have spoken to the person directly, even if
they have written to them. Teams may need to agree to do both.
E-mail networks help. At the moment, few transnational teams outside computer companies have
effective computer networks. Using an e-mail network speeds up communication and makes it
much easier to share, edit and review large amounts of information. This is especially true if the
team needs to share complex three-dimensional computer models developed with computeraided design programmes. Whole models seen from many angles can be sent back and forth for
refinement and comment. Eventually virtual reality will allow people to work at a distance
simultaneously on a model design.
If the team needs to review their overall objectives, change their orientation, question values or
principles or renew their strategy then they will need to meet together again. The risk of
misunderstanding across faxes, e-mail and video conferencing on these value-related issues is
very high.
* In time together: Establish objectives, goals and interim targets, build relationships, resolve
differences, make decisions, evaluate and review progress and if necessary change values,
policies and principles.
* In time apart: Establish a disciplined and regular system of communication, find and share
information; clarify goals, implement agreed actions and update others on progress. Prepare for

joint meetings in advance, send all background reading and information in advance and
anticipate your colleagues questions and needs.
An international team needs high performance goals, mutual accountability and an
interdependent task as does any national team. The team basics of clarifying and agreeing a
working method and performance goals, surfacing assumptions and differences, actively
listening and participating are the same. In international teams, applying the basics before
rushing to complete the task is all the more important. The differences in expectations and
approach are likely to be far higher.
As in any team, the task, the method chosen to complete the task, the personalities, the leadership
role and style, the team roles, behaviour, emotional links and the timing will all have an impact
on the effectiveness of the team. We know from research and experience that culture will have a
moderating effect on the decision-making process, the learning styles, the behaviour, the
attitudes towards status, formality, business relationships and the task or people orientation of
each individual.
People often ask, "Are they like that because of their culture or personality?" Within any one
culture you would expect a wide spread of individual preferences on the factors outlined above.
Research suggests that the effect of culture is to create a statistically measurable national norm
on each one. Culture moderates but does not override personality. Experience of different
cultures can change the effect of the original cultural influence.
The extent to which someone's behaviour and expectations are due to the influence of their
national culture or a natural outcome of their personality, is an ongoing lengthy debate. As yet no
line has been drawn. The important point is that in many cultures, feedback, both positive and
negative, is very difficult. In international teams, it is much easier to legitimately discuss cultural
differences than it is to give feedback on personal differences. Talking about cultural differences
can be established as neutral territory. We have all been influenced; there are no rights or wrongs;
good or bad. There are combinations of similarities and differences which work easily; there are
others that have to be surfaced and worked through.
Talking about national culture may not cover all the behaviours that need to be reviewed. One
US/UK team chose a "managerial grid" as a feedback tool. A mixed Asian and European team
chose three learning orientations. When one Hong Kong Chinese man got into difficulties, the

team was able to suggest that he could act a little less "red" (action oriented) and become more
"green" (people oriented). He listened without taking offence or losing face.
Most British and Americans do not seem motivated to learn other languages whereas Dutch,
Belgian, Hong Kong Chinese and other cultures learn two, three, four or more. Often, because of
the lack of choice, the common business language chosen is English. This can allow the English
and Americans to dominate, often by speaking incomprehensible colloquial English instead of
the second-language business English that has developed in the business world.
It can work the other way also. Subgroups can use side discussions in other languages to build up
alliances. Second-language English speakers are sometimes accused of using language as an
excuse to not participate. Leaders can work around this by asking each person to share their
view. Other team members can be encouraged to translate for them; in extreme cases outside
translation facilities can be offered. There seem to be different sensitivities around speaking a
foreign language. Finnish, Japanese and German tend not to speak unless they know exactly
what they are talking about and can express it perfectly. The French are stereotyped as not
appreciating or listening to anything but perfect French.
Demanding that only one language is spoken can also exclude people. Many words have no
exact translation or can mean various things across different languages. Where the language
differences are extreme, such as between Chinese and English, teams have sometimes agreed to
allow side discussions in subgroups in their own languages in order to check their mutual
understanding. They have then paraphrased their discussion and shared it with the whole team in
a common language.
Obviously the more common languages there are among the team, the easier it is to explain
details and check understanding. When the top executive team of an Italian subsidiary based in
France presented and discussed their company in German to the German company they were
buying out, it made up for months of trust building. When teams have built up trust, they often
begin to enjoy the multiplicity of languages and meanings and have fun with them.
The team and team leaders must work to encourage tolerance and interest around the language
differences. It is important to legitimize asking for clarification and repetition and encourage
people to explain the same thing two or three different ways from the beginning. The leader
needs to give time, especially at the beginning, for everyone to express themselves and be
disciplined about regularly summarizing and checking understanding to keep a balance of
participation. This builds up the group cohesion that allows the team to pick up speed without
losing people.


Do team members feel free to interrupt each other or not? Culture can strongly modify a person's
tendency to talk (or gesture) along with someone for support (an Italian trait), to interrupt and
talk over someone (an American and increasingly British trait), or to wait for a space to speak or
to be asked for an opinion (an East and South East Asian trait and usual for a non-fluent common
language speaker). In English the subject, verb, and object is usually at the beginning of the
sentence and the rest is secondary information. This allows impatient English speakers to
interrupt each other freely without losing too much of the overall meaning. On the other hand in
German, Hindi and Chinese however, the verb (and tense) is at the end of the sentence. In
Japanese the custom is cut to build up to the main point rather than put it at the beginning. A
Japanese expressed having "learned to put the point at the front, otherwise they do not hear me."
People who feel free to interrupt can dominate those who do not.
Cultures also have very different ways of resolving conflicts. These range across "shoot first,
make up later", argue it out on the facts, use a neutral third party arbitrator, listen to the elders, or
a mediator whose job it is to negotiate, cajole and persuade the two sides to work together. The
team needs to find out what works for that particular mix of people. Different tools and methods
can be tried. In cultures that avoid open conflict, the idea that contentious debate can also be
creative and not personal may need to be explored. Noticeably Honda has introduced wayagaya
creative debate groups in order to find better solutions to a wide range of problems on the shop
floor. Those used to dramatic gestures and raising their voices may need to adapt their styles.
It is unlikely that a team which avoids conflict will reach a high performance level. Surfacing
and working through conflicting differences is not the same as accommodating each other. In one
joint consortium the two managing directors, one a charismatic autocratic Frenchman and the
other a democratic participative German sat back to back in the same office. They learned to
accommodate each other, but did not surface and resolve their differences. The consortium has
not survived, pulled apart by different interests and skills.
The team can also anticipate key moments within the task when cultural differences are likely to
come into play. In strategic planning for instance there is likely to be little difficulty in
individuals sourcing and collecting the necessary information and coming together again to share
it. The conflict is likely to arise at the point where the group has to decide how to develop the
information into an argued plan. It is also the point where the team needs all the creative ideas
they can find. At this point the team can take time out to brainstorm using group techniques such
as Metaplan, Hexagons and Groupware. As the debate was getting heated, one high-level team
chose this time in the planning process to brainstorm at high volume in the squash courts. As a
result, they channelled their conflict creatively.


Some team members often become excluded. Suggestions are ignored; a team member is left out
when the group splits into smaller groups; people are not given time to explain what they mean
in a foreign language. Subtle and unsubtle prejudices about the levels of education and expertise
between international and regional officers, between people from "developed" and "developing"
countries, between men and women distort the balance of the team.
Individuals or subgroups can also be left out of the decision-making process. A team may have
opted for decisions based on consensus. When the very different positions of the members
become apparent, a workable solution can seem impossible. At this point a team needs to find, or
create, some common thread to build on. Instead, what often happens is that the team will persist
in arguing about their differences. In frustration, individuals will start building alliances with the
people who seem at least partially similar. Gradually more and more members join the alliance
out of frustration and the remaining few outsiders give up in despair. No synthesis of differences
has been found and some of the team are left resentful. The decision-making process has to be
conscious and agreed on by everybody.
It takes discipline, courage and sensitivity to confront the often unconscious forces that exclude
some people from the process. It can be a high risk. High performing international teams have
consciously taken those risks or have just been incredibly lucky.
* Start slowly and end faster; start fast and maybe not end at all.
* Use outside help if necessary to establish group and intercultural skills at the beginning. Create
a common language for giving feedback, surfacing cultural differences and talking about the
groups interaction. Learn group brainstorming skills such as Metaplan and hexagons if they are
* Someone, the leader or a team member needs to encourage meaningful participation from all
members, keep a visual record of what is being said, regularly summarize and check consensus
and understanding and to keep track of time.
* The leader or facilitator must also be prepared to use their intuition and insight to surface and
confront the underlying differences and prejudices that are causing tension or excluding a team
* Develop a decision-making process that avoids unconscious alliances and allows everyone to

* Build in time for discussing and reviewing the overall group process. This increased awareness
is an essential ingredient of high performance.
Differences in attitudes, values, behaviour, experience, background, expectations, language and
location create far more complex dynamics in international teams than most national ones. These
teams have become an integral part of the survival and growth of most international companies.
They are challenging, frustrating, costly opportunities for participants to learn and grow. There
are no universal formulae for success. The task is to use the similarities and differences and the
dynamics that these can set up and to turn them to the group advantage. If the team members
have reached a high level of emotional security, can laugh, joke, question and play devil's
advocate with each other while completing the task, then it has done well.
A high performance international team will have also accessed all its resources. It will have
continuously reviewed and questioned how effectively the team interaction has been moulded to
fit the task. Digging into the differences is a high risk. It can also yield new and unthought of
solutions to the task at hand and move the company one step nearer to being an effective global
Examples come from doctoral research at London Business School and research conducted with
D. Hambrick, C. Snow and S. Snell for the international consortium of executive development
and research.
Hofstede, G., Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind, McGraw-Hill, New York, NY,
Johansen, R., et al., Leading Business Teams, Addison Wesley OD Series, Reading, MA, 1991.
Katzenbach, J.R. and Smith, D.K., The Wisdom of Teams, Harvard Business School Press,
Boston, MA, 1993.
Trompenaars, F., Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Business, The
Economist Books, London, 1993.