Leading a multicultural team effectively

What is a multicultural team?

A multicultural or international team is a team of which its members come from different countries, share different cultural backgrounds, and as a natural result might speak different languages.

A multicultural team can bring a variety of benefits to a business or an organization; however, at the same time, it can be extremely challenging to manage. In order to be a successful leader in this peculiar working environment, managers have to understand the multicultural working context thoroughly while at the same time recognize the cultural differences to ultimately create an equal working environment, where everyone feels supported. Mastering the art of managing a multicultural team can boost productivity, creativity, and increase employee connections.

Here are our three tips to succeed at leading a multicultural team

1. Be mindful of the cultural differences

Their cultural background massively influences one’s behavior, and different cultures share different approaches to solving problems. Be empathetic and put yourself in the shoes of others to understand their point of view and where it comes from. It is also important to acknowledge and show respect to these differences, while proactively check if your own behaviors are endorsing any cultural stereotypes.

Besides, keep in mind that there will be a variety of communication styles within a multicultural team, and they are not an indicator of productivity. For example, some cultures prefer an egalitarian organizational structure. Employees are encouraged to take part in the decision-making procedure; meanwhile, some other cultures promote the hierarchical structure, in which important decisions are usually made by the top management. Learning about your team members’ cultures will help you relate to them personally, support them better at work, and ultimately assist them in reaching their best potential.

2. Settle on a common communication style

Besides the need to understand the diverse communication styles of different cultures, companies with multicultural teams should proactively find a common communication style to avoid confusion. Every culture promotes its own style of communication, conveying through both verbal and non-verbal means. Verbal communication includes the way people use words and sounds to express their ideas, while non-verbal communication covers everything beyond words (gestures, facial expressions, or body language). 

For example, one of the most mentioned cultural dimensions created by Hofstede is the Low context culture vs. the High context culture. 

* Low-context cultures focus on open and verbal communication. Conversation between people tends to be direct, precise, and explicit. A good communicator is someone who knows how to deliver a message to the point and quick. Countries that have low-context cultures are Germany, the Netherlands, and other Nordic countries.

* High-context cultures, in contrast, focus on an underlying message. Conversation between people usually includes non-verbal means and relies heavily on the context. Countries that have high-context cultures are Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, and some Asian countries. 

Having a multicultural team consisting of people from both low-context and high-context cultures, companies can settle on a multi-active communication style that falls between these two categories, which is a communication style that combines both nonverbal and verbal cues.

3. Be open to tough conversations and changes.

The most effective way to communicate in a multicultural working environment is to be open about this topic and respect your colleagues’ traditions and values. Be curious and show that you are willing to learn more about other cultures and appreciate their differences. If you are not sure how to best interact with someone from a different culture, be open about it, and initiate a conversation around this topic.

At the workplace, avoid sticking or promoting a single culture but instead embrace diversity. For instance, vary your festive holiday celebration at work, so all cultures are included. By doing this, your multicultural team knows that you acknowledge and respect their cultures.

Final thoughts

Managing a team composed of people coming from different cultural backgrounds can be challenging but rewarding at the same time. Leaders can start by acknowledging the differences in these cultures and then finding common ground in the way communication is delivered at the workplace. Finally, always keep an open mind to learn about new cultures. 

Zoe Huong Tran.

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