Leading Multicultural Teams: Building A Passionate & Respectful Workplace

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Countries and companies are becoming more culturally diverse. The USA is a prime example. In 1980, non-white residents made up 20% of the population, but by 2020 this had doubled to 40%. Technology is playing a part, too. Now, companies can connect with potential employees anywhere in the world.

 

All this means multicultural teams are becoming the norm. And with good reason: Companies with greater cultural diversity are 36% more profitable. People from different cultural backgrounds bring unique perspectives and ideas. So, like cross-functional teams, multicultural teams spawn innovation and creativity. 

 

However, mixing different cultures can lead to clashes. Multicultural teams can get stuck in a rut of negativity without good leadership, which ultimately harms productivity. This article will explore ways to prevent this in three main areas:

  1. Communication 
  2. Culture 
  3. Common ground 

Communication 

 

Good communication skills are essential in any team. But they're critical in multicultural teams. Open and honest communication is vital to avoid misunderstandings and build trust. 

 

Three things to be mindful of are:

  1. Different communication styles 
  2. Non-native speakers 
  3. The importance of safe spaces 

Different Communication Styles

 

Different cultures have different styles of communication. In low-context cultures like the USA, the emphasis is on what people say. In high-context cultures like Japan, the emphasis is on how people say it. And multi-active cultures are a combination of both. 

 

These different communication styles can lead to misunderstandings: 

  • Some team members may assume that what someone says is all they mean. Others may assume everyone understands their subtle gestures and tone of voice. 
  • Slang, sarcasm, and jokes may be missed or misinterpreted.
  • A friendly gesture in one culture could be an insult in another. For instance, the OK sign is positive in the USA but a racist symbol in Brazil.
  • Giving constructive criticism might be acceptable in one culture but rude in another.

It's therefore important that team members receive training on different communication styles. This will ensure everyone understands how their colleagues communicate and prevent misunderstandings.

 

Non-Native Speakers

 

Another thing to be mindful of is non-native speakers on the team. Communication barriers should never get in the way of good ideas, so reducing them is crucial.

  • Give team members time to voice their ideas. 
  • Encourage patience and understanding in all team members. 
  • Provide language training to help non-native speakers become more confident. 
  • Provide a written copy of all communication to give non-native speakers time to go through it.
  • Make sure everyone is comfortable asking someone to repeat themselves, or vice versa. 
  • Try to find a language that everyone is comfortable using. 

The Importance of Safe Spaces 

 

Safe spaces are vital for multicultural teams. Employees can discuss their feelings and voice concerns without judgment or repercussion. They can be on- or offline, so remote employees can benefit too.

 

Ideally, the entire work environment will be a safe space for discussion. If this isn't possible, consider organizing affinity groups. These groups can reduce stress by allowing employees to seek support from like-minded people. But leaders should always encourage cross-cultural dialog to break down barriers and stop "us vs. them" thinking. The trick is to provide support without creating division.

 

An open-door policy can help by:

  • Creating a feeling of openness and transparency.
  • Allowing employees to talk frankly with managers.
  • Allowing managers to give advice and support in confidence.
  • Flagging issues and potential conflicts early. 
  • Make sure all employees feel like their opinions matter. 

Culture

 

Cultural sensitivity is vital to becoming a passionate and respectful team. Cross-cultural training should be part of the onboarding process, including onboarding remote employees. This will ingrain cultural sensitivity from the start. Training should be reinforced regularly to:

  • Reduce cultural barriers.
  • Challenge cultural stereotypes.
  • Improve communication and listening skills.
  • Foster mutual respect.
  • Build a cohesive, productive team.

Any cross-cultural training should include teaching empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes. It can increase awareness and understanding and foster mutual respect. Simply put, empathy is a must-have skill for members of a multicultural team.

 

Other areas to consider are:

  1. Learning about new cultures
  2. Different ways of working
  3. Different time zones
  4. Different beliefs and customs

Learning About New Cultures

 

Leaders should also encourage employees to learn about their colleagues' cultures. This could include:

  • Traditional foods.
  • Basic words and phrases, like how to say "hello," and "how are you?"
  • Popular music and TV shows.
  • Proper dining and business etiquette.
  • Religious customs.

Learning about different cultures can reduce tension, prevent unintentional insults, and promote understanding. But there's a fine line between being aware of someone's culture and stereotyping them. 

 

While culture may influence a person's behavior, it doesn't define it. Thus, leaders should also encourage team members to get to know their colleagues as individuals. Team building and social activities are good ways to do this. 

 

Different Ways of Working 

 

When managing a multicultural team, keep in mind that different cultures have different ways of working. A good example is how different cultures view time. 

 

In many Western cultures, employees are expected to meet deadlines, prioritize urgent tasks, and attend meetings at the specified time. Missing deadlines and being late to meetings are evidence of a poor work ethic. However, in many Asian cultures, meeting a deadline is less important than doing a task well. So understanding how different team members work is vital to avoid clashes.

 

Different Time Zones

 

The pandemic has accelerated the growth of remote working. 61% of workers now prefer a fully remote environment. The downside is that team members can be spread across different time zones. 

 

A good video call app can make it easier to liaise across time zones. But leaders still need to ensure deadlines and meetings are at times that work for everyone. Taking it in turns to have early or late meetings is one way to reduce possible friction. Also, time management apps can help team members stay in sync.   

 

Different Beliefs & Customs

 

When working in a multicultural team, be mindful of different beliefs and customs. Different cultures have different holidays, so work schedules should reflect this. Avoid favoring one culture over another, and ensure you cater to everyone. For instance, some team members may not eat beef or pork or eat meat at all. Find out each team member's preferences to show that you respect them. That way, they're more likely to respect and appreciate you in return.

 

Tailor online events like webinars and training sessions to suit everyone for remote employees. Encourage employees to choose a neutral meeting background for video calls. This not only provides privacy but also reduces the risk of misunderstandings. And make sure everyone can easily get in touch with you. 

 

Common Ground

 

An excellent way to foster teamwork is to find common ground. Two ways to do this are:

  1. Emphasizing common goals
  2. Providing common resources

Emphasizing Common Goals

 

To reduce potential conflicts, leaders should reinforce company goals at every opportunity. You could even turn an online conference about vishing [voice phishing] into a team-building exercise. After all, vishing can affect workers from any culture. When team members focus on what's common, they're less focused on their differences. 

 

Just having a goal isn't enough. Every project needs a clear plan to give the team purpose. The plan should include:

  • The overall goal.
  • The objectives.
  • The responsibility of each team member.
  • Checkpoints to keep the project on track.
  • KPIs to monitor the project's progress.
  • Meetings to discuss progress, voice concerns, and suggest ways to improve.

Any plan should emphasize how each team member is helping to fulfill the project's objectives. That way, everyone knows everyone else's worth, and team bonds are strengthened. 

 

Providing Common Resources

 

Each team member should have access to the same resources. This is particularly important when managing remote teams that don't have access to a physical office. Tools for file sharing, scheduling, and project management can boost collaboration.

 

An example is multichannel inventory management software, which manages a company's supply chain from warehouse to customer. Software like this reduces errors and ensures each team member knows what's expected of them so that no one will step on anyone's toes. 

 

Leaders should also provide standard guidelines that incorporate norms from every culture. This will help harmonize the different ways that people work while avoiding the appearance of favoritism.  

 

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

 

Multicultural teams help businesses thrive. They bring together different perspectives and ideas, boosting creativity. And creativity breeds innovation.

 

Multicultural teams indeed come with challenges. But by fostering teamwork, reducing cultural barriers, and highlighting common goals, leaders can build a passionate and respectful workforce that values diversity. 

 

Building a successful & respectful multicultural workplace needs every member to be in alignment. DH's Leadership alignment can help get your entire org moving towards success together. 

DIVERSITY, EQUITY, INCLUSION,  & BELONGING WORKSHOP 

About the Author

Severine Hierso

Severine Hierso is EMEA Senior Product Marketing Manager for RingCentral Office, the leader in cloud communications and virtual PBX solutions, and is passionate about creating value, differentiation, and messaging, ensuring a better experience for customers and partners.

 

She has gained extensive international Product Marketing, Market Research, Sales Enablement, and Business development experience across SaaS, Telecommunications, Video Conferencing, and Technology sectors within companies such as Sony, Cisco, Cogeco Peer 1, and Dimension Data/NTT.

 

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