A recent study highlights the importance of considering global characteristics of leaders and members of multicultural teams and of using a selection and training process that focuses on a global rather than a cross-cultural perspective.

The findings are from a Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation-funded report, Managing Multi-Cultural Teams: From a Cross-Cultural to a Global Perspective, released in July 2011.

“As part of the globalization process, multinational organizations form international teams to pool global talent, meet organizational goals and implement complex business strategies. A growing number of employees in multinational organizations face the new reality of working in multicultural teams,” lead researcher Miriam Erez writes in the report.

A typical team consists of people with different cultural backgrounds located throughout the globe, according to Erez, who is on the faculty of Industrial Engineering and Management, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. She cited Intel Corp.—a U.S. multinational technology corporation based in California—as an example. It has teams of employees located in Israel, Ireland and the U.S.

Global vs. Cross-Cultural Perspective

There is a difference between having a global perspective vs. a cross-cultural one when it comes to leading cross-cultural teams effectively, Erez says.

“Global perspective means integrating all culturally diverse and geographically dispersed employees into one unified team or unit,” she explained in an e-mail to SHRM Online. “It means developing acceptance of identity; it means holding a global identity in parallel to a local/national identity.

“Global leaders are expected to have high levels of global identity,” she added, “which means that they see themselves as part of the global workgroup or the global organization.”

Leaders who have a cross-cultural perspective do not necessarily see themselves as belonging to more than one culture, she noted.

“An American manager posted in Japan does not necessarily develop a dual identity—American and Japanese. However, an American manager working in the global work context may develop a dual identity—a global identity and a local identity.”

While most research into cross-cultural leadership looks at differences and similarities across cultures, research into global leadership “suggests a different way of thinking,” with an emphasis on managing in a global context, Erez writes in the report.

HR departments of multinational organizations invest a lot of resources and effort into selecting and training expatriates, and most concentrate on knowledge training and behavior modification training relevant for specific cultures, according to the report. They are guided by a cross-cultural perspective that “emphasizes differences and similarities of values and behaviors among countries.”

However, because multicultural teams operate in a global context, with people from different nationalities working together to accomplish a global mission, “comparisons between two national cultures can be meaningless.” Also, cultural comparisons might not explain the relationships between a team leader and his or her local team in a global context, she points out in the report.

Different Characteristics

Erez suggests that adapting to a global work culture and managing a global workforce might “require different characteristics than the ones needed for an expatriate who is going to be located in one particular culture.”

Those characteristics include openness to cultural diversity, global identity, cultural intelligence and global leadership behaviors. They should reflect cultural values of the work being performed in a global context and enable the team and its leader to adapt to the global context.

Her findings suggest that a multicultural team leader should undergo training that reflects a global mind-set rather than a cross-cultural one and that it should include:

* Global work values and behavior norms.
* Opportunities to practice global leadership in simulated virtual teams. At the university where Erez teaches, she runs an International Virtual Team Project for graduate and MBA students around the world.

In addition to looking for such characteristics as openness to cultural diversity, selecting a multicultural team leader should include assessing that person for multicultural experiences such as being multilingual and having lived in more than one country.

The findings suggest that global HR departments use training programs that are theoretical and practical and include role play. Such programs should be aimed at helping team members overcome cultural barriers and work in unity.

Programs should include training simulations with 360-degree feedback from team members, peers, trainers and experienced global managers.

In addition, there should be global leadership career development consisting of mentoring programs, virtual multicultural teams, opportunities to communicate with people from other countries and visits to global worksites.

Global training should include a cross-cultural aspect to educate employees and managers about the expected cultural differences among team members that influence their behavior, according to Erez. The training should educate team leaders and team members about work values that are shared by all employees working in a global work context, regardless of their home country’s cultural values, she says.

The findings are based on two web-based questionnaires. One involved 282 MBA students from eight universities in six countries. They were working in 73 virtual, four-week multicultural teams as part of their course assignment.

The second study involved 274 employees working in 55 continuing multicultural teams in nine multinational organizations.