Leading a Multicultural Team

Managing a multicultural team can be a rewarding experience, giving leaders the opportunity to work closely with employees from diverse backgrounds and offering the chance for personal and professional growth. However, operating a team with genuinely different people also comes with a number of challenges that must be overcome to create a productive work environment.

Leaders must be knowledgeable and open minded of different cultures to gain a better understanding of employees and find a way to help them work together as a team.

Breaking Down Cultural Barriers

It’s easy for misunderstandings to occur on a diverse team simply due to cultural differences. When people have different values and are accustomed to certain behaviors, it can take some work to get everyone on the same page.

Some cultures have a more direct style of addressing problems, while others prefer to focus on the relationship and take a more subtle approach. For example, the Dutch have a reputation for being very straightforward, while the Japanese are typically more reserved and formal.  Team members from these cultures may have to make an effort to adapt to each other’s style and expectations.

Time is another major issue that often causes rifts in multicultural teams. While Americans plan their day according to the clock, other cultures are often much more relaxed. Employees from such backgrounds may believe it’s perfectly acceptable to let a meeting run over the scheduled time period or show up late if they were in the middle of an important conversation ─ which is bound to upset those who prefer to stick to a strict timetable.

The phrase “time is money” translates well for most cultures, since money is a universal priority in the business world. If everyone on the team respects each other’s time as they would respect each other’s money, that can go a long way.

Forming a United Workplace Culture

Multicultural teams are often composed of employees who would rarely interact with one another otherwise. While their individual cultures should be celebrated, it’s important to shape a cohesive and constructive atmosphere for everyone involved.

Management should talk to employees ─ creating focus groups if necessary ─ to learn more about similar problems faced by workers. If there isn’t one obvious solution to these issues, it’s a great idea to ask for input on the best way to manage them, so everyone feels like they’re being heard.

Understanding Cultural Differences

Business practices, customs, and acceptable topics of conversation vary greatly from one country to the next. So while the behavior of an employee may appear inappropriate in America, it could very well be the conventional way of doing business in their native country.

Gaining a solid understanding of the key issues associated with a multicultural team will allow management to be much more effective. While certain employees may initially be viewed as difficult, lazy, or rude, digging deeper to explore their cultural norms can offer valuable insights that help all members of the team understand each other better.

Have you had an experience as an employee or employer – or even as a customer – where cultural differences affected a situation negatively?  Consider how making a careful and informed effort to overcome them might have mitigated the problem.

2 thoughts on “Leading a Multicultural Team

  1. That has to be a very difficult job to manage a multicultural team. What is considered praise in one country can be insulting in another. It is a potential minefield for a leader. I found this article, Become a Better Leader through Cross Cultural Awareness at this link, http://bit.ly/1nLnGle that will give you perspective.

  2. Multicutural is becoming the norm and not the exception. After working in China for 20+ years I have seen leaders succeed when they have been good at asking questions and hearing answers as well as having a profound respect for the individuals they work with. If you do not like to learn and change, a multicultural context is not for you.

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