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Grow Your Business Your Team

How to Best Lead a Multicultural or International Team

How to Best Lead a Multicultural or International Team
Credit: Ferbies/Shutterstock

There are many benefits to having a diverse team. Different perspectives boost creativity and wisdom, enabling your team to attack problems from multiple angles and come up with unique solutions.

However, when it comes to a multicultural team spread across the globe, managing such a diverse squad can sometimes be difficult. Kristin Behfar, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation, determined that in addition to the usual problems teams face – such as how to expend resources, how to solve problems, and confrontation – multicultural teams face a unique set of challenges. Among them are varying expectations toward respecting hierarchy and status; prejudice and stigma spilling into the workplace; cultural and language barriers; and varying interpretations of commitment or agreement to a decision.

Behfar and her co-authors, Mary Kern of the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College and Jeanne Brett of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, interviewed people worldwide who had experience leading multicultural teams. Using their responses, the researchers developed a few tips for getting the most out of a diverse team.

Think about how your team members might view you. Ask if your behaviors uphold cultural stereotypes and acknowledge it with good humor – but avoid self-deprecation. It can be disarming but will often backfire, said the researchers.

It's also important to recognize that communication styles are not indicative of intelligence. For example, some cultures are more inclined toward open-ended questions than others.

Native speakers should be the mediator to ensure a mutual understanding. Create the norm that asking someone to repeat themselves is not offensive, especially when it comes to a heavy accent. Use pictures, stories and data to help illuminate the conversation. Avoid colloquialisms and slang, or words with two meanings or confusing context.

When it comes to business decisions, the researchers advised asking for agreement in multiple ways. For example, offer extra time to proofread material and to revisit a "final" decision multiple times.

 

Companies with multicultural teams should proactively accommodate different work schedules (e.g., time off for siestas) and vacation norms (five to six weeks in Europe). Be sensitive to dietary and religious restrictions in planning days off, choosing restaurants, and selecting food in the break room.

You should also work to understand values and motivations. Is a deal in time for quarterly postings a key objective, or do they find it most important to not look bad in front of superiors?

The researchers cautioned against speaking a certain language in the office unless everyone is fluent in it. It's also wise to remain current on political issues in co-workers' countries of origin, especially in regards to war, ethnic conflict, foreign intervention and regime change. Use caution when discussing world politics.

Finally, be sensitive to the perceived "status" of a country – the U.S. has a dominant pop culture, for example, but it likely offends others.

For more advice on leading a multicultural or international team, visit the full report on the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation's website.

Adam C. Uzialko

Adam received his Bachelor's degree in Political Science and Journalism & Media Studies at Rutgers University. He worked for a local newspaper and freelanced for several publications after graduating college. He can be reached by email, or follow him on Twitter.