Working in Diverse US Teams

Time and again, when I work with cross-cultural individuals, especially non-Americans, the issue of team dynamics emerges.  Many note Americans can leave others out of the conversation and decision-making. Especially for those from cultures that are group-oriented and less individualistic, there is a befuddlement about how Americans, especially American men, will try to “take over” the conversations and sway the team toward his perspective without really gauging where the rest of the team is.

This is a perfect example how culture affects team communications.  I often explain to non-Americans that the US values individualism and opinions.  So if you do not speak up, Americans will assume agreement.  If you do speak up, you need to be direct and persuasive.  You need to be clear about your recommendation, why you hold this point of view and why this would offer a better outcome for the team.  Importantly, I advise individuals to make their point with a statement rather than with a question, because the latter could be perceived as a true question, not as a soft way to make a point.

For non-American women who come from cultures where there is greater social distance between men and women, the strong energy with which some Americans make their point can intimidate them from speaking their point of view.  My advice to them is to know that “might does not mean right”.  And that they can be “quiet and strong”, making their point without having to raise their voices or sit forward into someone else’s personal space.  But they need to hold their ground about their recommendation and offer supporting data.  If the situation is one of intimidation, she has the opportunity to disengage and ask the other person to calm down, at which point she will re-enter the conversation.  I also advise getting other team members’ perspective and support, done in the group or offline.

For Americans who’s passion for expressing their opinions is a norm, I advise they consciously step back in team situations and ask how others think about the situation, and then, really listen. To make sure everyone’s point is considered, take the time to write on a flip chart.  Americans need to appreciate these cross-cultural dynamics. Just because they were able to “win the argument” in a team meeting by being the most boisterous, that doesn’t necessarily translate to the team agreeing to follow.  Others may not oppose verbally but may do so through non-action when it comes to execution.

Our cultural preferences lead us to communicate with others in varying ways.  Whether you fall on one side or the other in the abovementioned situation, the opportunity is to shift to a mode that is outside of your comfort zone so you can be most effective with a culturally diverse team.  There may be bumps along the way, but if team members believe their voices are being heard and counted, you’ll get over the bumps and achieve your shared goal.