How to disagree constructively in international teams?

Marianne Slotboom
Dec 16, 2021

Field studies that investigated the difficulties when it comes to working within international teams (Meyer, 2014) show that one of the most important misunderstandings comes from how people express their disagreement. Depending on the cultural background of the team member, confrontation might be a loss of face, or on the contrary an opportunity for improvement.

Let’s take the example where you might find yourself in an international meeting asking your colleague from India if she could get the project done before next week. She responds with “yes” and goes on to describe her plans with the family who will be visiting her this week. What do you do next?

If you’re from a low context culture (like most Western parts of the world) you probably will be looking for a clear answer and ask your colleague when she could complete the project. Within your culture, disagreement and debate are generally perceived as positive for the team and the organization. Open confrontation is appropriate and will not negatively impact the relationship.

If you are from a high context culture (like India or China) the chances are good you understand the answer through the family narration and know that the project will most probably not get done by next week. Generally, in these cultures, confrontation is avoided. It is seen as inappropriate and will break group harmony or negatively impact the relationship. People tell you “no” in a indirect way and the context of the conversation is where you will find the answer.

If we take a closer look at cultural tendencies (without wanting to stereotype) in, for example, Germany and the Netherlands people tend to disagree openly, considering it to be the most honest way to collaborate. Americans and Finns also tend to be very frank and direct. French people disagree openly, in a polite way. Spanish people tend to avoid a direct “no”, but show their disagreement indirectly through their behavior.

‍How to disagree constructively in international teams?

In East Asian culture, open disagreement is taboo — indeed most Asians are nervous about it. Especially if their boss or someone senior asks them to do something it is common to say “yes” in order not to be disrespectful. This will make them to say “yes” in situations where they mean “no” (or when they are not sure if they will be able to do it). In general, British people also dislike open conflict and use various instances of coded speech to soften their opposition in conversation.”

If you are working in an international team, you’ll have to know how to decode or code communication in order to work together constructively.

Building a high-performance, international team usually starts with proper intercultural training to enhance awareness of each other's perception and with the creation of constructive rules of conduct.

Want to know more about how to work constructively in international teams? Read the other articles we have posted about this subject!

Marianne Slotboom
The author
Marianne Slotboom

Marianne is a strategic partner and practical developer of human behavior that helps leaders, teams and organizations become more focused and effective, elevating their value to customers. In 2015, Marianne founded Yellow Training to answer the call for more inspirational and creative leadership in the modern workplace.

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