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Creating Great Intercultural Teams Through Relationships

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

Working to build Social Capital creates strong teams in almost every culture on the planet.

The Rise of Intercultural Teams: Research, Challenges and Findings

Team dynamics have changed dramatically over the last 30 years. We have moved from mono-cultural teams with teammates operating in the same office to teams with a mix of cultural backgrounds distributed across the globe.

Cross-organizational teams are also becoming more common as large companies try to cut costs and reduce time to market by teaming with companies that produce similar products. Sometimes these teams are pulled together into one place for the duration of a project. In other situations the teams work together virtually and may only see each other once a quarter.

MIT Sloan published some significant research on the topic of intercultural teams in 2001. After spending time with over 70 international Global Teams, Mr. Govindarajan and Mr. Gupta discovered a consistent reality. Successful intercultural teams who reached 100% of their targets had two things in common:

  1. They were able to overcome communication barriers; and

  2. They were able to build high levels of trust on the team.

Working with intercultural teams today, we find that this still holds true. Communication and trust remain at the top of the list of concerns for intercultural teams as they strive to achieve a common purpose and develop a sense of belonging.

Building a successful Intercultural team

Teaming is both a transactional (or technical) exercise and a relational one. On the transactional side, it is important that all members clearly understand the tasks at hand and have the competencies, skills and experience that are needed to complete them successfully.

On the relational side, it is important that a team develops Inter-Cultural Intelligence (ICI) and Emotional Intelligence (EI). Teams can only grow trust and social capital as they understand and appreciate the behavioral styles of their teammates. This includes understanding intercultural dynamics and each other’s cultural journeys – especially on a multi-cultural team.

The success of your team starts in the recruitment phase. You must have individuals who are technically competent to do their jobs.

But once the team has been gathered it is important to go beyond that to find ways to start building trust and developing good communication. Overcoming communication barriers requires us to not only focus on the creation of common objectives we pursue with competencies and skills; but also on building team cohesion and the relational ability to work together effectively. This is Social Capital, the resource of good relationships that grows over time from good communication and building of trust on a team.

The Cultural Side of Relationship-Building

You will likely deal with some team members who take a Universal approach to relationships. That means they are happy to meet in each other’s homes and do social things together outside of work. You will also have some team members who are Situational and separate work, family and social contexts.

We have found that best practice in an intercultural environment is to be a little toward the Universal side of relating. For Situational-oriented people who believe work is work, family is family, and social life is social life; you might have to draw them out a bit to compromise and join events that deepen relationships outside of the work context.

If you are leading an intercultural team, be sure to create and allow moments where relationships are free to develop naturally, and where people talk about more than is directly relevant to the job. Moments like these will indirectly build better communication, understanding and trust between people.

Plan regular events that are creatively put together. They do not have to cost the company a lot of money, and you can even build them into the team schedule. We have found that this builds social capital and resonates cross-culturally nearly everywhere in the world.

Companies who can create shared purpose combined with high social capital are most likely to retain their top-performers, see an increase in information-sharing and innovation, and be successful in building high-performing intercultural teams.


Contact us about ways you can equip teams with the full power of Inter-Cultural Intelligence (ICI) anywhere in the world.



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