Multicultural Teams: Managing Transcultural Issues
It’s happening more and more every day. Multicultural teams are no longer the “hip” or “unusual” topic of international business. They are everywhere. Having an ethnically eclectic team has unbelievable advantages—suddenly you have a handful of cultural experts on hand and people who are multilingual. But as diverse as teams can be, so too can the myriad of issues that arise from them.
Imagine you are the leader of global sales in your company. You’re preparing a meeting involving all the global sales teams including the US, Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Your president, who is notorious for asking tough and straightforward questions, will also be joining all briefings. During the briefings, the president asks each group the same questions. Afterwards, a team member from China, Guo, seems upset so you take him aside to speak with him.
“I felt so disrespected, especially in front of my peers.” He says. Even though the president treated all teams the same, something was lost in cultural translation with Guo and his peers. He’s thinking of leaving the company. What do you do?
Situations like this are not uncommon. Hierarchical and egalitarian issues occur, as well as ideas of peer respect. What can appear as respectful of people’s time in American business culture can come across as rude and uncaring in other parts of the world, and assuming a person of another culture understands subtle and implied meanings can’t be the default way of thinking.
What matters most is how a leader handles these situations and how they facilitate an effective cross-cultural working environment. A good balance has to be found between being culturally sensitive, respecting employees, and being responsible.
Here are some quick tips on how to better manage a diverse group:
- Understand your employeesAs a team leader or manager, it’s essential that you explore and
get to know the cultures of your employees. Having a foundation that you can use to reach out and relate to each one will prove invaluable later on as you have to deal with employees one-on-one for a common goal. This will also help facilitate a resolution to any issues that may arise between employees in the company.
- Host company-led groups and get-togethersYou’d be surprised how people learn to relate to each other when there’s space, food, and a bit of time to mingle. Encourage employees to bring a taste of their home culture for the event to share and remember “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.” – James Beard
- Engender cross-team work situationsInstead of isolating each department, find ways for departments to work together. If your employees get to know each other via a team environment, they’re much more likely to have better communication and empathy towards each other, and a great natural understanding of each other’s cultures.
- Make yourself availableAs seen in the story above, Guo felt a sense of trust and camaraderie with the global sales leader— you – and though he was extremely upset with the president, he was still able to confide in you, with the hopeful ending being that you were able to diffuse the situation. Stress, and re-stress, that you are available if there is ever a work place problem—particularly related to cultural differences or confusion. Oftentimes, an employee can be assuaged through simple acts of listening, understanding, and reiterating the fact that you will continue to pursue a respectful cross-cultural environment within your multicultural team.
On a final note, always remember there will be issues in the workplace. CAI works constantly with individuals and multicultural teams who are crossing extensive cultural boundaries. Though culture plays its part, employee personalities are also involved and solutions aren’t always clear. Do your best to treat everyone with patience and understanding, and be quick to address an issue when you see it arise. By doing your homework on the cultures of your team, and with a little luck, all should turn out well.