It’s well established by now that multicultural teams, and collaboration across borders is a boon to innovation and productivity. However, the boon can just as easily be a bust on a multicultural team that lacks clear leadership and understanding of the individuals that make up the group. While common sense good management practices apply to multicultural teams in much the same way as they do to a “regular” team, it’s also the case that a multicultural team tends to require more attention to the individual, as well as a greater awareness of the composition of the team. Leading a multicultural team means being more deliberate and active, and it all starts with good communication. 

Since the beginning of the year tends to be a good time to look over what it is that has worked/not worked in the past, here are some ideas for areas to reflect on:

  • Who are the individuals on my team?
  • What do work/life balance needs look like on my team?
  • How can we improve team building?
  • How can I communicate more effectively — with individuals, team as a whole?

Individuals make up the group

Because cultural background impacts everything — from how you see your role in a group, to how you make decisions, to your understanding of hierarchy, and how you give and receive feedback, it’s important to listen to the individuals and then forge a plan for the group as a whole. For a multicultural team to function well, there must be clear expectations and rules, the goal being that there is a shared understanding of how the group functions. For the manager setting the course, this means staying away from cultural stereotypes while acknowledging the fact that there are cultural differences.

As a matter of fact, in multicultural team management, it’s not uncommon to hear the need for spelling out what the ground rules are — as in writing them down for the whole group to see, and agree to. This can include everything from hierarchical structures to communication flow, to rules for bathroom cleanliness. 

What about work/life balance?

Another big-ticket item on the multicultural team is work/life balance. Living and working in a foreign country means being away from your regular support system at home, all the while trying to adapt to a new society and way of life — that’s not always easy. Add language barriers and practical matters, such as setting up house in a place where you don’t know how things work, and the stress is real. If there is an accompanying partner/family, there are even more considerations in this area. 

As with so much else in the world of multicultural collaboration, the topic of work/life balance also comes down to communication. Do you know what the needs of your team members are? What kind of support does the company offer its global talent in order to facilitate both the process of settling in a new location and then living in that place? What flexibility can you as a manager offer? Perhaps the most important question of all here: are your team members aware of resources and support available to them? 

Team building

Yet another area to consider is team building. Team building can be tricky, especially if part of the team is working remotely, or if there are cultural barriers to how colleagues view one another and the workplace. In some cultures, eating several of the day’s meals together with your coworkers is commonplace, whereas in other cultures sharing meals is limited to an occasional social event or celebration. In some places, getting together with colleagues after work is par for the course, elsewhere this is hardly ever done. What’s your office like? More importantly, how can team bonding be improved based on the composition of your specific group? 

Communication and feedback

Being an effective manager also means giving feedback and making sure your talent is living up to their potential. In order to give feedback effectively in a multicultural environment you might need to spend a little more time learning about the cultural background of your employees, and how where they come from informs their style of communication and their work habits.

The way feedback is given and interpreted varies widely in different cultures. Erin Meyer gives a classic example in her book The Culture Map where she tells the story of a French manager working in the US at an American company. When receiving feedback from her American boss during a performance review, the French manager hears only positives and is under the impression that everything is going great. The American boss has several areas of concern that he feels he communicated clearly during the review. How come they have completely different views on what was said in the performance review? Erin explains that there is a cultural disconnect between how the French and Americans give feedback. She says: “In a French setting, positive feedback is often given implicitly, while negative feedback is given more directly. In the United States, it’s just the opposite. American managers typically give positive feedback directly while trying to couch negative messages in positive, encouraging language.”

To someone accustomed to the French way of giving feedback the impression would be that everything was going great and that there is no need to make any changes. The American boss, on the other hand, thought he had outlined several areas that needed improvement. In this example, not knowing the cultural background and communication style has a direct effect on the performance of the individual, which in turn has consequences for the team she is leading. 

How a team is managed can have a great impact on the success and health of the individuals on the team, as well as the productivity and output of the team — in the end, how a team is led is what sets the course — to success, just plodding along or even failure. The starting point in multicultural team management is always communication. As Erin Meyer says: “When interacting with someone from another culture, try to watch more, listen more, and speak less. Listen before you speak and learn before you act.” 

By: Felicia Shermis

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