Leading Through Cultural Differences in Remote Teams

  •  Understanding the dimensions of culture and its impact on work
  • Developing a global mindset
  • Leading remote teams effectively across cultures

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed work life as we used to know it. A recent survey by IBM found that prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, only 10% of individuals indicated they were working from home. By July 2020, this had quadrupled to nearly 45%.

The IBM survey further found that of those currently working remotely, 80% indicate they would like to continue to work away from the office at least occasionally, while 58% would like this to be their primary way of working.

What does this mean for international business leaders?

Many organisations around the world plan to make working from home the ‘New Normal’.

However, a more remote workforce challenges the way we successfully lead, particularly so as different perceptions can enlarge the intercultural differences amongst team members. In fact, GLOBE, a study across 62 countries on ‘Global Leadership and Organizational Behaviour Effectiveness’ (2004), discovered that national cultures have an impact on how people within that culture consider leadership styles to be acceptable and effective.

It is impossible for leaders to be experts on every culture represented by individuals on their teams. However, it is important to become aware of cross-cultural differences and be able to bridge these distances efficiently and effectively. This starts with an understanding of the impact of national culture on the way we see ourselves and the world around us.

Image from Pexels.

First things first: in simple terms, national culture is the set of norms, beliefs, behaviours, values, attitudes, customs shared by a certain population. The national culture of a country is highly dominant and shapes organisational cultures in the form of expectations on how to interact with each other, how to manage work together, and how to think about problems and present solutions.

There are a number of frequently cited theoretical frameworks of cultural competency, all with their own strengths and limitations. To start making sense of how we can manage the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the way we work and lead across cultures, we will focus in this article on Geert Hofstede’s original model in which national cultures are analysed according to four Cultural Dimensions.

Before exploring these cultural dimensions, it is necessary to be aware that although Hofstede’s framework helps us to assess a given culture and thus better guide our decision-making, we cannot predict individual behaviours. Another point to consider refers to the context when assessing a culture’s effectiveness. No cultural dimension is better than another; they are simply different. Each one has its own pros and cons in different circumstances.

Hofstede’s original framework includes the following four Dimensions of Culture:

Power Distance

In cultures with relatively flat hierarchies, we typically see democratic power relations where people are viewed as equals. Western cultures tend to be low in their power distance belief. The ‘New Normal’ gives team members more control over their own work schedules, emphasising their preferences for independence and trying something new.

Image from Pexels.

As leaders, it is imperative to consult with your remote team members about decisions related to their own job scopes and ensuring that they can continue to work independently without much supervision. Being open, friendly, and approachable, are valuable leadership qualities to support the remote work transition.

Low Power Distance example countries: Austria, Denmark, New Zealand.

In contrast, Asian countries are considered high power distance cultures; there is great respect for authority and inequality is a fact of life. In cultures with steep hierarchies, leaders are expected to clearly guide and direct team members in completing tasks and working towards deadlines.

Remote team leadership requires daily check-ins, explaining requirements, and expressing faith in the team’s ability to make decisions and act on them, whenever appropriate. Team members tend to respond best to an accessible, experienced, and strong leader who nurtures them to greatness.

High Power Distance example countries: Malaysia, the Philippines, Mexico.

Individualism versus Collectivism

In countries that emphasise individualism, team members expect specific and challenging tasks that come with a clear definition of roles and responsibilities. Employees from individualistic cultures typically like to feel involved, valued, and rewarded accordingly.

As there is a natural preference for independence amongst team members, remote leaders must stay away from micro-management to avoid feelings of distrust. Instead, leaders should actively manage expectations and outcomes whilst ensuring accomplishments are recognised, both at individual and group level.

Individualistic country examples: USA, Australia, Canada.

Collective societies value loyalty where individuals look after each other under a decisive and supportive leadership. In these cultures, team members tend to feel uncomfortable making decisions by themselves (as things can go wrong). They typically rely on leaders to set the direction and provide clear instructions.

Image from Pexels.

In a remote work environment, team leaders must focus on explaining the tasks and deadlines in simple but explicit terms; what is required by when? To ensure team members are on the right track, leaders should regularly check-in to monitor targets and timelines without coming across as too intrusive.

Collective country examples: Central America, China, Indonesia.

Masculinity versus Femininity

The Masculinity versus Femininity Dimension is about expected emotional gender roles, not about individuals. Both men and women can score highly for exhibiting masculine or feminine values and behaviours.

Masculine societies stand for ambition, decisiveness, clear role distinctions, rewards and the ‘live to work’ mentality. Workers are typically motivated by competition and a strong drive for excellence, which translates into working long and hard hours.

Image from Pexels.

In the ‘New Normal’, team members may feel as though they have to prove themselves even more as there is no leader around to observe what is happening. Leaders must make a point of demonstrating trust in their teams whilst focusing on progress and productivity, not necessarily the time period it is happening in.

Masculine country examples: Japan, Hungary, Austria.

Whilst masculine cultures are considered ‘tough’, feminine cultures are often described as ‘tender’. At work, people focus on interpersonal aspects such as managing through discussion, consensus, compromise, and negotiation. A strong belief is that life does not revolve solely around work, which makes achieving a work-life balance an important aspect of a healthy work environment.

When leading a remote team, a coaching leadership style is most effective to ensure people feel nurtured and cared for. This includes providing team members with a certain freedom to make decisions and manage their own work schedules.

Feminine country examples: Sweden, the Netherlands, Chile.

Uncertainty Avoidance

A high level of Uncertainty Avoidance is associated with a general feeling of being uncomfortable with change. In a work environment, risk avoidance is typically achieved through the implementation of policies, procedures and processes.

The rapid shift to remote work may take a hit on team members’ health and well-being through feelings of anxiety, stress and frustration. Remote leaders can support their employees by creating a lot of structure and predictability. This includes clear goals and expectations, regular check-ins on team members, and opportunities to share successes and safety for potential failures.

High Uncertainty Avoidance country examples: Greece, Portugal, Russia.

On the flip side is a low level of Uncertainty Avoidance where curious individuals enjoy new events and initiatives. Team members tend to be pragmatic in their thinking and accept change as a way of life, as they are used to revisions without much notice.

Image from Pexels.

Remote team effectiveness can benefit from this ability by engaging employees to move forward. Team leaders must also focus on getting everyone on the same page by establishing ‘rules of engagement’ to guide the remote work process, not to overly control it.

Low Uncertainty Avoidance country examples: Singapore, the Nordics.

As for working effectively across cultures, this article only touches briefly on Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory. It does, however, show that cross-cultural leadership requires, first and foremost, an understanding and awareness of different cultures. The next step is to decide on appropriate adaptations to relate and work most effectively with people from various cultural backgrounds. There is no single approach right for every individual.

How should organisations go about leading through cultural differences in remote teams?

Currently, I am working with a group of business executives from a world-leading multinational corporation on bridging cultural distances. Through the coaching sessions, we establish ways to make collaboration, decision making and problem-solving more effective in remote teams. Starting with discovering their own cultural lens and that of the people they work with, clients quickly move forward by identifying how they can switch their leadership styles to ensure the long-term performance of their teams.

If you believe that you and your organisation can benefit from understanding and learning more about the various cultural differences and how to successfully lead intercultural teams, our coaching sessions might just be the right solution for you. Drop me an email at [email protected] and I will get back to you as soon as possible.

About the author

Miriam van der Horst is a partner of OML consulting with 15 years’ experience across Asia Pacific, primarily focusing on leadership development and cross-cultural learning. She helps her clients, ranging from first-time managers to business executives of multinational companies and government departments, get better at dealing with change and being flexible enough to adapt with knowledge and sensitivity. Having lived and worked in the Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, Vietnam, Australia, China, Singapore, and now Hong Kong, Miriam works comfortably, respectfully and effectively with people at different organisational levels and from diverse backgrounds.