Monday 16th April 2012

Managing a multicultural team

In today’s global economy many expatriates have had a great deal of experience working with people from different countries long before they move abroad for work purposes. However, it is not until you actually live among people of different nationalities that you really start to appreciate the difficulties that can arise when you attempt to work alongside and communicate with people from cultures that are so different from your own. If you move overseas for work purposes you may suddenly find yourself managing people from several backgrounds and there are some general rules that you should follow to ensure that your intercultural experience is a positive one.


1. Be flexible

When working with people from different cultural backgrounds to your own, it is important that you are flexible and are prepared to adapt to their ways of working. Your way is not necessarily the best way and you need to be open minded and willing to change your own practices and outlook.


2. Research other cultures and values

The sooner you start to understand the basic underlying cultures and values of the people you are working with, the easier it will be to respect the differences in working style and understand how you can deal with them. In addition to this, taking the time to understand behaviors and gestures that may be insulting to the people you work with will also prevent you from making any cultural faux pas that could damage your working relationships for good.


3. Do not stereotype people

While it is good to form a general understanding of how people from a given cultural background may behave, it is important that you do not automatically expect all people to behave in the same manner. Take time to get to know people as individuals.


4. Treat everyone fairly

Do not assume that people from one given culture will be better at performing a job role than people from another. Ensure that you choose people for tasks based on their skills and experience, as opposed to their cultural background.


5. Listen

Be prepared to listen to the opinions of others. Although you may have your own opinions and preferred way of working, taking the time to listen to the members of your team can help you to avoid a number of diplomatic blunders that ruin relationships before they have the chance to even begin.


6. Do not automatically impose your ways of working on others

Just because you are the manager does not mean that you know better than everyone else, especially if you are working overseas in an environment within which you are not fully familiar. Ignoring the values of your team will be a shortcut to losing their respect.


7. Encourage open communication

One of the biggest challenges when managing multicultural teams is communication and closing the gap between different cultures’ communication styles and preferences can be extremely challenging.


8. Never tell a team member that they are wrong

People should be given a chance to openly voice their opinions and you should encourage open communication and discussion at every opportunity. In the event that you don’t agree with someone’s opinion, ways of working or ideas, never tell them that they are wrong. Instead, try to diplomatically steer the decisions using logical discussion and positive references.


9. Encourage team building and raise awareness

If you’re team consists of people from many different cultural backgrounds, it is important that you give them as much opportunity as possible to form bonds as a team. Consider running training days in which the team are encouraged to explore their different outlooks on life and professional conduct and work together to identify ways in which they can work productively with one another while recognizing and understanding these differences.


10. Learn to understand body language and mannerisms

Observe the people who work under you and learn to understand their body language and habits. Some people may prefer to be looked at in the eye while you are talking to them, while others may find this overbearing. Learn to understand what your team members prefer and try to treat them as they like to be treated. Although this may take time to master, your working relationships will be much more productive as a result.


11. Understand different attitudes to time

People from different cultures and backgrounds are likely to have very different views of time. For example, someone from the United Kingdom would expect a meeting that is scheduled at 2:00 p.m. to commence at 2.00 p.m. on the dot, while for many people from an Asian background may use 2.00 p.m. as a vague time and will show up for the meeting at some point around 2.00 p.m., perhaps at 2.10 p.m. Your role is to understand cultural differences such as these, accept some of them but challenge those that you really cannot tolerate.


12. Understand what motivates and inspires your team members

Some of your team members may be motivated by money earning opportunities, while others may be looking for recognition and increased responsibilities. If you can understand what drives the people in your team you will be better placed to use that knowledge to motivate them and spur them to work in a manner that meets the overall goals of your team.


13. Never treat ethical jokes lightly

Once you become familiar with your team members it is normal that banter may start to take place and you will start to trade light insults and jokes. While this is a normal element of many effective working environments, try to ensure that you never push the boundaries too much. A bad joke that is culturally sensitive can damage the team dynamic and may even lead to serious complaints. Try to put clear policies in place for your team to follow and if any members do violate them, ensure that you treat it seriously.


14. Recognize that some people will need more of your time than others

People work in different manners and will prefer to interact with you in different ways. Some members of your team will be able to get on with a task once you have assigned it to them, while others will look for ongoing input and advice. If you are dealing with someone with minimal English skills, for example, you may need to deal with them in a very different manner from another team member who can pick up emails and get on with your instructions. Ensure that you recognize the people who will need more input and guidance and, if you can’t spare the time yourself, delegate the task to an individual who take the responsibility for making sure they understand the goals and instructions.


15. Conduct regular performance reviews

Taking the time to review progress with members of your team can give you both an opportunity to discuss any problems and highlight any areas where your cultural differences may be clashing. Being able to pinpoint problem areas can really help you to recognize which cultural differences are having a negative impact on performance and try to identify methods by which you can deal with them as a team.


16. Understand different attitudes towards hierarchy and authority

Different cultures have different attitudes towards hierarchy and some team members who are from countries that have a strong hierarchical approach to management may find it very difficult to work in a flat structure, and vice versa. Try and identify team members who are experiencing difficulties conforming with your preferred management style and team structure and work together with them to set expectations.


17. Understand the importance of the group versus the individual

One concept that many expatriate managers will come across concerns individual’s views of collectivism. On the whole, people from an Anglo background will have a very individualist approach to their work and will be happy working on their own, outside of a team. On the contrary, in the collectivist cultures that are typically found in Asia, people operate in groups and will generally prefer to work as part of a large team. As a manager you need to understand how these attitudes can affect the effectiveness of your team members and should consciously try and form a work environment that fits with their cultural work preferences.


18. Do not underestimate the need to communicate clearly

Although many of your team members may be able to communicate in English, their ability to understand you may be severely impacted by factors such as accents and dialect. Misunderstandings or deep frustration may occur as a result of translation or usage issues. Where possible, document all instructions and goals in writing and well as relaying them verbally so that your team members will have an opportunity to digest the expectations.

There is no doubt that managing multicultural teams can be extremely challenging. The more aware you are of the differences towards work, life, communication and management that are present within your team, the more equipped you will be to manage the people within it effectively.


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