4 Keys to Building and Leading Culturally Diverse Teams
Is it possible to build and lead a dynamic, healthy, and culturally diverse team to accomplish the Great Commission? We believe it is.
Our experience in working on international, cross-cultural teams has emerged naturally out of who we are and what we do. As Global Disciples, we equip people to reach those least-reached with the gospel in their own nations. We work with clusters of churches in collaboration with a denomination, association, or an existing network of churches – now over 1,400 different affiliations in 62 countries. In partnership with these local churches, we now serve 2,064 locally sustainable mission training-sending programs around the world.
Working as a cross-cultural, international team has been in our DNA since we began 26 years ago, with ﬁve discipleship-mission training programs in three countries.
Today, only 19% of our 155 team members are in North America – the rest live and work from their homelands.
We have six people and four nationalities represented on our executive team, and our training Alliance is led by a team of eight from six countries. We travel together, train together, pray and plan and equip each other, across a wide range of cultures and perspectives. And we enjoy sharing what we are learning and hearing from others about what their experiences have taught them.
Out of this, we see four keys to building and leading a strong culturally diverse team.
4 Keys to building and leading a strong Culturally diverse team
- Deal Openly with Cultural Differences
- Develop Friendship and Build Trust
- Determine Clear Focus and Priorities
- Define Accountability and Selection of Leaders
1. Deal Openly with Cultural Differences
It may seem obvious but talking openly about cultural diﬀerences and expectations right up front – and along the way – is essential for building and leading healthy cross-cultural teams. It’s not enough to think, “Well, I’ll have to get used to that …” as we are often inclined to do.
Identifying differences of perspectives, patterns, or expectations is honoring to everyone involved. Make note of those things – mentally or written down – so you don’t rehash things every time they come up. Decide together about how your team will deal with diﬀerences and agree to revisit it later if necessary. This can allow you to move on quickly in a mutually agreed upon way. Be careful to not automatically defer to the dominant culture or the leader’s preference. North Americans often tend to be the ﬁrst to speak or make statements strongly.
Allowing others to speak ﬁrst is empowering, even if they need to be personally invited to comment. On issues like scheduling, it is often wise to go with or adapt from the culture of the setting especially for a meeting or training people.
2. Develop Friendship and Trust
There is one thing that is common to every individual, relationship, team, family, organization, nation, economy, and civilization throughout the world – one thing which, if removed, will destroy the most powerful government, the most successful business, the most thriving economy, the most inﬂuential leadership, the greatest friendship, the strongest character, the deepest love.” That one thing, according to Stephen M.R. Covey, is trust. We agree.
By being authentic, building friendships, enjoying life together, and addressing diﬀerences or concerns promptly, we build trust. In most cultures, trust is built on credibility. And credibility is generally established and maintained through at least four things:
- honesty, walking your talk, being consistent inside and out
- Positive Intent
- our motives, our agenda, and our resulting behavior
- our attitudes, appreciated skills, knowledge, and style
- our track record, getting the right things done in a good way
In our Cross-cultural teams, we talk often about leading by example or “modeling the way.” Sharing this common desire and discipline provides a healthy level of mutual accountability. It gives opportunities to practice “speaking the truth in love” as we seek together to “live a life worthy of the calling we have received” (Ephesians 4:1–15), in which we are humble, gentle, patient, bearing with one another in love, and making eﬀorts to preserve the unity of the Spirit. All this nurtures friendship and trust.
Some of our best interactions come over tea times and mealtimes, sharing about our lives and being disciples as we travel, sharing a room at night, or sipping coﬀee. As we understand where people come from, their joys and challenges, our appreciation grows.
3. Determine Clear Focus and Priorities
Connectedness and unity on cross-cultural teams grows as we embrace a common focus and reach agreement on what is most important now and in the future. On our teams, we try to keep three things up front: Why are we together (our vision)? What will we do to pursue this vision or accomplish our purpose (our mission and central focus)? And how will we approach this task or responsibility (our core values and guiding principles)?
To answer those questions as Global Dis-ciples we have developed what we call our arena, using the image of a soccer or football ﬁeld to deﬁne where we work and interact as we pursue our mission and vision.
Our mission statement and our central focus (our what) deﬁne the goal lines of our playing ﬁeld. The sidelines are deﬁned by our Core Values, describing how we behave and interact with others, and our Guiding Principles clarify what we do. This Global Disciples Arena has been hugely helpful in defining focus and overall priorities on our culturally diverse teams.
When delegating specific tasks cross- culturally, we broaden this to six questions: Who is to do it? What is it we want done? When do we want it completed? Where will it be done (if that matters)? How it is to be done if we have a preference? And why are you asking your team/team member to do this?
Delegating effectively in any culture is challenging but it is multiplied across cultures and can easily become prescriptive or feel paternalistic. Clarity and attention to ensuring common understanding allows us to avoid many of pitfalls in leading across cultures – if we develop a level of trust and friendship that fosters open conversation about our diﬀerences.
Our diﬀerent views of time and deadlines has led to many interesting discussions on differing expectations. When we built a cushion into deadlines to assure things were submitted in time for printing and preparation, one leader began asking, “Is the line really dead now?”
4. Define Accountability and Selection of Leaders
Clear expectations matter, especially across cultures. Who should set those expectations on cross-cultural teams? The common assumption may be the team leader, but it’s not that simple on healthy multi-cultural teams. A leader’s role is to guide the team through discerning mutually accepted expectations, patterns of accountability, and how future leaders or team members are selected.
This doesn’t have to be laborious, when you go back to the ﬁrst principles of building and leading culturally diverse teams. Establishing trust and friendship so that diﬀering views can be expressed freely is essential and when paired with a mutual commitment to listen well, to pause and pray – listening for the Holy Spirit’s counsel when differences persist – it makes a huge diﬀerence.
We also face cultural assumptions about how leaders are chosen. Within Global Disciples we say, “select well, serve well.” When hiring or promoting staﬀ, we explore their buy-in with our vision, mission, and core values. Without that, there’s no need to go further.
Then we consider with our Four Cs: Char-acter, Competency, Chemistry, and Calling (anointing for the job). In recent years, we have also used Patrick Lencioni’s three virtues of The Ideal Team Player: Humble, Hungry, and Smart (i.e., relationally sensitive and appropriate). Considering these factors together provides a balanced and healthy framework for discernment in hiring and promotions across cultures.
However, it requires time with the candidate or team member to apply these considerations. We have also had a near-culture colleague spend time with the candidate in their home with their spouse and family. In these settings, we have learned much that has averted potentially bad decisions and have never regretted time together while interviewing.
In many cultures, promoting a younger or less experienced person over someone older or with more history is a challenge. It takes time, patience, open communication, and authentic affirmation when working with the older, more seasoned person who is not promoted. By God’s grace we’ve made that transition several times without losing the more senior leader or seeing their passion for our common mission decline.
Finally, frequent, clear communication and well-defined patterns of accountability are essential for building and leading healthy multi-cultural teams.
A lack of clarity in roles, especially cross-culturally, can result in leaders holding back and underperforming because they don’t want to cross the line of their defined responsibility – or they fear stepping be-yond defined responsibilities and creating confusion. Most of our mid-level leaders provide brief weekly reports on key metrics in their jobs.
In senior level roles, a monthly report and call, with other conversations as needed, is our pattern. Most of our cross-cultural team members are self-starters, passionate about what they do – so they don’t need constant communication to stay focused. But we all find it important to clearly know what we are accountable for and by what metrics our performance will be measured.
There’s a deep joy and sense of satisfaction in working with multi-cultural teams as we are compelled by the love of Christ, energized by authentic friendships, and propelled by the common cause–making God’s glory known among the nations!
– Galen Burholder, President/CEO of Global Disciples
Global Disciples Canada is a Christian mission organization that trains local leaders living near least-reached communities to multiply disciples for Christ. One third of our world hasn’t heard the Good News of Jesus. Yet. Global Disciples refers to these as “least-reached” people, and fewer than 10% of all missionaries work among these groups. We live in a time where many of these people are within reach of a local church. Through our simple and effective strategy of training and coaching, believers share the Gospel in their own nations and cultures. Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” and we’re committed to doing just that. If you are looking for a Christian mission organization to partner with to become a better disciple and help make disciples, connect with us today!
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