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What Good Managers Understand About Successful Cross-Border Teams

One thing good managers understand is norms. They establish them at the start, monitor them throughout, and quickly address bad ones when they develop.

But what are norms in a team context?

Norms are standards of behavior. They make teamwork easier and smoother, but they can also lead to conflict if individual members violate them.

Why is it important for team managers to understand group norms?

Teams establish norms to address issues that affect the survival (or success) of a group.1

  • Group norms help team members predict the behavior of individual members2.

Knowing how others will behave makes it easier to respond appropriately. There’s no need to waste time figuring out how every interaction needs to be handled.

Norms let individuals know whether to address their superiors formally or informally, how to deliver work, the right way to offer feedback to fellow colleagues, and more without wasting time over thinking the correct course of action.

  • Group norms help teams avoid awkwardness, discomfort, or tension3.

There are essential boundaries between the personal and the professional. Unspoken rules develop to protect the productivity and cohesiveness of the group. A team can decide not to discuss salaries, engage in romantic relationships with colleagues, or discuss personal lives4 since all of these things can lead to divisive scenarios involving income, emotional attachments, or politics.

How has the emergence of cross-cultural teams complicated the traditional development of group norms?

Recall our earlier definition: Norms are standards of behavior that make teamwork easier and smoother.

Norms are also slippery to grasp. People expect that norms will be understood implicitly rather than stated explicitly.

For the most part, waiting for norms to develop naturally works for professional teams comprised of people who share similar national backgrounds, cultural conditioning (at school if not at home), and a shared understanding about what constitutes “professionalism” or “corporate behavior”.

The growing usage of cross-border teams complicates this expectation. One of the key determinants of group norms is behavior from past experiences. Such social and professional  experiences differ for a cross-cultural team.

As Andy Molinsky and Ernest Gundling write in the Harvard Business Review, something as vital to a team’s success as comfortably exchanging feedback can be riddled with potential conflict.

Suppose a manager builds their team with three German employees and three Korean employees. On the one hand, cultural assumptions about how Germans handle feedback (direct to the point of bluntness) versus how Koreans handle feedback (limited criticism unless it’s from a senior figure to a junior figure) might suggest to the manager that there will be difficulties.

On the other hand, what if those Korean team members earned their work experience in Germany or another Western institution? Perhaps there’s no need to worry because they’re already comfortable with this method of working.

No matter what, figuring out which of these scenarios applies takes time. It can mean waiting until a conflict actually arises to know there’s a disconnect. Applying clear norms from the start can prevent this confusion.

Where should managers focus their attention when establishing the norms for a new cross-cultural team?

The best time to establish norms is at the start of a project or the conception of a team, and managers can use their authority to set the tone. Managers should pay special attention to:

  • Efficiency vs. relationship-building: Different cultures have different expectations when it comes to socializing versus getting straight to work. If this is something you want to actively promote on your team, encourage this by dedicating five minutes to chat with team members about non-work related topics.
  • Communication and collaboration style: Do you want people to tell you about potential challenges, even if they might not materialize? Make that explicit. Let it be clear that asking for assistance or communicating lack of progress is not the same as admitting to a lack of competence.
  • Day-to-day tasks and roles5: There are regular tasks (i.e. taking minutes, booking meeting rooms) that aren’t part of any one member’s job description, but need to be handled. Certain tasks may fall disproportionately on one team member’s shoulders for a number of reasons. There may be gender roles at play or the team may simply assign all the chores to the shyest member or the member most averse to conflict. To avoid resentment or neglected duties, determine how these tasks will be managed and make it clear that those duties can’t be passed off.
  • Delivery of work: If you want work delivered in a certain way or you expect individuals to consider specific factors for each project they work on6, a template or set of guidelines outlining these expectations gives you the work you want and employees the framework they need.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The main takeaway is that group norms can make or break the success of a group. A manager who clearly understands them can recognize harmful norms and spot areas where setting clear guidelines is helpful.


1-6. Feldman, Daniel. “The Development and Enforcement of Group Norms.” The Academy of Management Review 9, no. 1 (1984): 47-53.