Skill Building Series: Team With Clashing Cultures

Clashing Comfort Zones and Time Zones: It’s a problem

June is the most organized and efficient project coordinator that I’ve ever met. So when she came to me with a feeling of overwhelm and frustration that something was impacting her ability to do her work, I knew something had changed. A recent reorganization placed June on a new work team.

It is not unusual for June and her co-workers to be assigned to a variety of teams. They have been able to transfer to new teams and pick up in the middle of a project without missing a beat. But somehow this new team was different. Since the re-organization, the teams have become more global. At first it was exciting, but then as June tried to apply her same organizational skills and business processes into practice, things started going wrong – they no longer worked.

June has run into a common problem – trouble adapting to working across cultures with a diverse team. Some of the obstacles the team faced included working with different:

  • time zones
  • definitions of work/life balance
  • technological approaches
  • communication styles
  • comfort with uncertainty
  • long term and short term focus

June had dealt with the different functional cultures as she has worked with cross-functional teams most of her career. What she lacked was experience with and strength in working across organizational and national cultures. She needed to build her cultural intelligence.

A More Desirable Outcome

Skill: working across cultures | working with diverse teams

June wants to have a high performing team. For that to happen across cultures, she needs to create an environment that is inclusive of different working and communication styles. It is important that team members co-create a model that works for all members. This will require June to be comfortable with change; to support things she doesn’t totally agree with; and most importantly be open to the views of others.

The Path Forward

Action plan: develop cultural intelligence

The first step in making any change is to understand your current stance. June and I worked together to increase her awareness of her assumptions about how things ‘should’ be done based on her own experience, values, and culture.

The next step was to help her be open to differences of team members and the value they bring. She used a 4 step approach called PACA as outlined by Terence Brake in his book Where in the World is My Team:

  • Prepare: learn about the differences of the team members to avoid surprises and be more open to adjusting your way;
  • Act: act on your learned knowledge and understanding of a culture;
  • Check: check on other’s reactions and your one (in real-time);
  • Apply: apply what you are learning in real-time; keep checking your own and others’ responses and adjust.

During each of our bi-weekly coaching sessions, June and I reviewed how the team meeting and interactions had gone and what (if anything) she could have done differently.

June continually learns about the various cultures of her teammates through conversations, reading, and observation. Her ah-ha moment came about mid-way through the coaching program when she realized – ‘we are always learning about ourselves and others, aren’t we?’

A Word of Caution

We may be able to observe behaviors and everyday business practices, but what we are not usually prepared for (and are hidden to us in day to day interactions) are the cultures, assumptions, and values of the individuals around the virtual team table.

Though it is understandable to try to generalize (this helps us to understand things that groups of people have in common), please never stereotype anyone based on their nationality, race, gender, or other category.

Your Turn


At your very next team meeting, approach each team member as an individual. Do one thing to get to know their preferences, styles, understand their values, assumptions, and the culture that influenced these things. With this approach, you will have a much more successful social dynamic, team dynamic, and therefore a more productive team! By being open to learning about others, you will learn about yourself.



About The Skill Building Series

The anywhere worker is designing, building, and leading the future of anywhere work. There are many skills needed to be successful as an anywhere leader. In this serious, we will meet several virtual / anywhere leaders who have sought coaching. In each session we look at the presenting problem, the desired outcome, and an action plan. Not surprising is the need for these skills in any leader – anywhere.

I may have changed the names (to protect the clients) but the situations presented are very real. Don’t be surprised if you see yourself in any of these scenarios.