Collaborating Across Cultures: How to Handle the Pressures of Delivering Seamless Service

By Heidi K. Gardner

Clients’ demands to deliver seamless service across jurisdictions exert pressure on both firms and individual lawyers to figure out how to collaborate across cultures. No cross-border matter is truly routine, because each involves coordinating lawyers with different assumptions and ways of working. Yet each one presents an opportunity to shine brightly if the pieces align well.  Every professional would like to think she does her best work when the stakes are highest, as in the case of important multi-jurisdiction client work. Paradoxically, though, the pressure on cross-border teams to perform exceedingly well drives people toward lower-risk options with sub-optimal outcomes.  In my research at Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, and London Business School, I have studied hundreds of client-facing teams in global professional service firms.  Results demonstrate that performance pressure –not time pressure, but rather the demand for delivering exceptional results in highly consequential situations –creates anxiety that leads people to avoid failure rather than seek true excellence.  The retreat to their comfort zone typically results in two unintended consequences:

  • Collaboration suffers because people seek greater control over their projects.  Delegation feels risky, especially for lawyers who have traditionally been rewarded for individual achievement and personal reputations.  When under pressure, people become extremely task-focused, and the time it takes to communicate effectively — especially to explain issues to a non-native speaker who approaches the work somewhat differently –feels wasted. Performance pressure also narrows people’s perspectives such that they have more trouble than usual understanding others’ points of view, which further damages communication that is essential for cross-cultural work.   Pressured lawyers’ diminished appreciation for cultural differences, and even for practical realities like time zones, generates trust-damaging conflicts that undermine teams’ ability to deliver seamless service.
  • Innovation suffers under high performance pressure because people reject novel inputs that seem riskier.   Ideas with outcomes that cannot be guaranteed get passed over in favor of the “tried and true” – but approaches that have proven optimal in one country may be inappropriate in the international context.  Although clients instruct a global firm expecting innovative results on their sophisticated cross-border legal work, the pressures of coordinating a multi-cultural team can subtly influence lawyers to seek simplified approaches that end up appearing less tailored than expected.

These outcomes are the exact opposite of what the professionals aimed for, but most of them happen so naturally that they are hard to identify in the moment, especially when the team is focused exclusively on results without regard to interpersonal dynamics. Despite the difficulties of global collaboration in the face of pressure, however, lawyers can take concrete steps to equip themselves and their teams for delivering exceptional cross-border service.

  • Establish a foundation of trust. Lawyers, who are generally more introverted and more skeptical than average professionals, must develop two kinds of trust in colleagues.  First, in their professional competence: “I trust you to produce high-quality work and be highly responsive to requests.” Second, in their character: “I trust you won’t undermine my relationship with my client.”  Both kinds of trust develop most naturally from familiarity and shared experiences, but lead partners on a matter can develop swift trust by creating the right conditions.  Specifically, leaders must offer fair terms to contributors and make reasonable requests, recognizing that their own client’s priorities are not necessarily aligned with everyone else’s.  If working with a complete stranger, asking for a reference from a mutually acquainted colleague can substitute for a history of personally working together to bridge the potential trust gap long enough for actual, interpersonal trust to develop among team members.
  • Equip the team with the right resources.  Everyone’s natural tendency is to ask for help from people we know well, even if they are not necessarily the ideal expert for the job.  This inclination is even stronger when performance pressure increases the psychological risks of a piece of work.  But spending the effort to get the real experts on the team, rather than defaulting to those who are familiar but less adept, will ultimately pay out (provided you follow the guidance above on creating swift trust).  Ideally, think broader than just the pure content expertise: the perfect contributor for a cross-border matter also has sufficient cultural intelligence to operate in a global team.
  • Launch the matter/deal effectively.  Develop a clear purpose for the team, and communicate well and frequently enough so that people understand it and buy into it.   Team members also must know “who knows what” so that they can efficiently turn to the right expert with queries or suggestions.  Although it is tempting to believe that professionals who have worked together before already know each other’s relevant knowledge and strengths, my research shows that familiar teams are highly susceptible to making erroneous assumptions about others’ knowledge.  The discrepancy between members’ beliefs about others’ knowledge – what I call “expertise dissensus” – creates conflict and lowers performance, but it can be overcome by an effective team launch.  When lawyers know how they and others fit into the bigger picture, they can hold each other mutually accountable for both timely and high-quality deliverables.  A small investment in up-front planning and communication can improve team output by as much as 30 percent.
  • Balance efficiency and effectiveness.  Because it is natural for team members to become highly task-focused under pressure, leaders of cross-cultural teams must work especially hard to ensure that people take the time necessary to communicate effectively, with appropriate respect for cultural differences.  Leaders must be role models of providing timely, direct feedback, and intervene immediately to defuse team conflicts.  Leaders themselves must reflect periodically on their own inclinations to drive toward a solution versus keep their minds open to novel approaches that fully leverage members’ knowledge of local conditions and requirements.
  • Help partners build and maintain their global network.  Despite the prevalence and increasing quality of tools like videoconferencing, nothing substitutes for building relationships in person.  Annual partner conferences may seem like a luxury, but well-structured events heighten partners’ awareness of and bonds with far-flung partners whose expertise or clients offer ideal complementarity and potential for collaborating.  Firm leaders need to understand that returns from these investments may take time, but can easily outweigh the costs.   In addition, some firms get tremendous benefits from formal programs like secondments, where senior associates or even recently promoted partners spend six or 12 months in an overseas office of the firm.  When they return home, they continue to serve as important links between offices.  One firm I worked with could typically trace at least three, and sometimes 10 or more, new international referrals between a secondee’s home and host offices in the year following his or her return.  Some of these referrals went directly to the secondee, but many were to colleagues; the secondee had merely played a brokering role by connecting others who needed local expertise.   Partners I interviewed suggested that they would not have known to contact a partner in the overseas office without that recommendation.

These steps are especially effective in the context of a firm where the culture and processes like compensation are aligned to foster global collaboration.  But they may be even more essential in firms that are struggling to catch up to clients’ demands for cross-border service.  No matter the context, taking these actions to enhance global collaboration will undoubtedly pay dividends for lawyers, their firms, and their clients.

My ongoing research at Harvard uses robust statistical techniques to uncover and test the effects of collaboration, including cross-border work.  The methods include analyzing a decade’s worth of time sheets and financial records from two global law firms, interviewing hundreds of professionals around the world, and conducting detailed case studies of several global professional service firms. One primary aim of the research  is to answer the question, “Is there any real evidence to show that a culture of collaboration makes any difference to the financial performance of the firm and of individual partners?”

The results are quite dramatic. First of all, I found that clients served by a firm’s offices in multiple countries generate significantly more annual revenue than can be explained by the mere addition of extra work.  The chart below shows these effects in one global firm by comparing matters that involve partners from different numbers of countries.  Across the firm, single-country matters generate the lowest revenue. But each additional country that participated in a matter contributed, on average, an extra $45,000 in fees.  I also found that countries beyond the “usual suspects” added significantly to this increase.  For example, the data show that adding a partner from the UAE or Netherlands was about as beneficial as adding someone from Australia or Hong Kong.  Of course, the specifics of these findings pertain to one of the firms I studied, but the implications are clear for much cross-border collaboration: working across cultures can be extremely difficult, especially considering the pressure that it places on teams doing this work, but the payout can be significant for firms that get it right.


But what did the research show about the effects of collaboration for individual partners?  First, when a partner develops a reputation for doing complex, cross-border work, he or she can command higher hourly rates.  The data show, however, that the effects only kick in once matters involve at least four countries. On a per matter basis, the average hourly rate a partner can charge does not change when the matter involves one, two, or three countries, but with the addition of a fourth country, partners involved charge a significantly higher hourly rate.  Unfortunately, most partners seem not to reap this reward: in one firm I studied, only 2 percent of partners had worked on a matter in the last three years that spanned four or more countries.  Nearly a third had worked on matters involving three or more countries, but the vast majority tended to work with partners only from their own country.  Another statistical finding indicates that collaborating on cross-border matters or deals boosts a lawyer’s longer-term productivity in terms of realized revenue.  For example, working on just one additional four-country engagement in a year increased a lawyer’s billed (and realized) revenues the following year by an average of 8 percent.  Some of these gains can be explained by a lawyer’s increased capabilities for delivering sophisticated cross-border work that led to similarly high-value work in subsequent years; another part of these longer-term benefits accrue from work referrals from the lawyer’s broader internal network that was built working directly with far-flung colleagues; a third type of advantage flows from developing a reputation for handling multi-jurisdiction engagements – and the spread of this reputation throughout the firm.

In summary, just when teams need to collaborate smoothly to deliver excellent client service on a cross-border matter, they often succumb to performance pressure that undermines their effectiveness.   But if lawyers strategize to combat these unintended consequences, they can end up shining in the most critical moments.  Those who do are likely to reap significant rewards for themselves, their firms and their clients.


For further reading:

  • Casciaro, T., & Lobo, M. S. (2005). Competent jerks, lovable fools, and the formation of social networks. Harvard Business Review, 83(6), 92-99.
  • Earley, P. C., & Mosakowski, E. (2004). Cultural intelligence. Harvard Business Review, 82(10), 139-146.
  • Gardner, Heidi K. Manage Your Team’s “Dissensus.”
  • Gardner, Heidi K., and Lisa Kwan. (2012).Expertise Dissensus: A Multi-level Model of Teams’ Differing Perceptions about Member Expertise .” Harvard Business School Working Paper, No. 12-070.
  • Hackman, J. R. (2011). Collaborative intelligence: Using teams to solve hard problems. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Meyerson, D., Weick, K. E., & Kramer, R. M. (1996). Swift trust and temporary groups. Trust in organizations: Frontiers of theory and research, 166, 195.


About the Author

Heidi GardnerHeidi K. Gardner is a Distinguished Fellow in Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession and formerly was an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School.

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