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How to Best Lead a Multicultural or International Team

Kylie Ora Lobell
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Updated Dec 03, 2021

Researchers offer a number of tips for how to get the most out of a diverse, multicultural team – whether it's in your office or across global borders.

  • Managing multicultural teams can be challenging yet extremely rewarding.
  • When creating a multicultural team, work to break down differences, traverse language barriers and respect one another’s cultures.
  • Multicultural teams help create a forward-thinking, diverse and inclusive business.
  • This article is for business owners and managers who want to be better leaders and create thriving multicultural teams. 

There are many benefits of 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. Here’s a look at building and managing a multicultural team to create a forward-thinking, diverse and inclusive business

What is a multicultural team?

A multicultural team includes people in different countries or from different cultural backgrounds.

It can be challenging to manage a multicultural team spread across the globe. In addition to facing problems all teams encounter – such as resource expenditures and practicing problem-solving skills – multicultural teams have a unique set of challenges, according to Kristin Behfar, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation.

These unique challenges include varying expectations toward respecting hierarchy and status, prejudice and stigma spilling into the workplace, cultural and language barriers, and agreeing to a decision.

TipTip: If your team is spread out worldwide, the best remote working tools – including communication, scheduling, project management and file-sharing systems – can help colleagues stay connected.

Why are multicultural teams important?

People of diverse backgrounds and places of origin offer a mix of skills, perspectives and ideas. A multicultural team brings new perspectives from around the world, which can lead to better problem solving. Multicultural teams also make your business more inclusive and forward-thinking, and can help create a great company culture.

Tips for managing a multicultural team

Mary Kern of the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, Jeanne Brett of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Behfar interviewed people worldwide who have led multicultural teams. Based on the responses they received, the researchers developed these tips for supporting a diverse team.

1. Break down cultural differences.

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

This tip is helpful not just for managers, but also for employees on the team. Encouraging openness is a must and can truly make a difference in the team’s morale.

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. 

Taking the time to learn about the cultures of your team members can help you relate to others on a personal level, and take away some of the stigma associated with different cultures.

2. Minimize the language barrier.

Fluent speakers should act as mediators 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. Being straightforward will ensure all team members work together and learn to communicate openly with one another.

When it comes to business decisions, the researchers advised asking for agreement in multiple ways. For instance, offer extra time to proofread material and revisit a final decision multiple times. This will lead to the best decisions and help to avoid miscommunication.

3. Work around cultural customs.

Companies with multicultural teams should proactively accommodate different work schedules – including time off for country-specific holidays. 

Be sensitive to dietary restrictions when choosing restaurant outings or planning catered events. This will create a warm and inclusive work environment, and allow those accustomed to certain working conditions to continue with their usual style. It also shows respect and consideration, making employees feel like they are really being seen and heard by their manager and team members.

You should also work to understand values and motivations: Is a key objective quarterly postings or do your team members find it more important to avoid looking bad in front of superiors?

4. Avoid creating artificial divisions.

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

Try your best to be nonpartisan, and avoid talking about controversial or politically charged issues. When you have a multicultural team, it’s much better to focus on work and relationship-building than topics that could cause tension.

Finally, be sensitive to a country’s perceived “status.” For example, the United States has a dominant pop culture, but it likely offends others. It’s beneficial to be considerate, and make the workplace a safe and neutral area.

5. Find common work hours. 

When managing a multicultural team, you may be juggling working with people who live in different time zones. When it’s 9 a.m. in California, it’s 5 p.m. in England. Try to find some common work hours so that your employees get the opportunity to collaborate. 

Establishing common work hours can also increase productivity and improve communication, which builds conducive teams. If it’s not feasible to have crossover hours every day, scheduling a weekly meeting where everyone can catch up is a good idea.

Key TakeawayFYI: Powerful communication tools for small businesses – including Slack, Google Meet and Microsoft Teams – can enhance collaboration in multicultural businesses, especially when workers are remote.

6. Discuss varying cultures candidly.

If your employees are comfortable with it, encourage them to talk to their co-workers about their cultures in an informal setting – like a lunch ‘n’ learn. Employees want to feel heard and seen, and encouraging your multicultural team to take the reins to discuss their cultures is a great way to do this.

7. Hold multicultural training sessions. 

When you build employee development and training programs, include cross-cultural training, so employees become sensitive to each other’s needs. This is a great way to keep your team focused and positive

In the training sessions, consider covering sensitive topics, such as: how crucial it is to avoid stereotypes, why you need to have an open mind and listen to your co-workers, and how you can break down cultural barriers in a healthy fashion.

8. Take the time to learn about different norms. 

Managers should educate themselves about cultural norms to successfully support a multicultural team. For instance, the Japanese culture is to bow to one another in everyday life and while conducting business: The junior person will bow first to show respect to the senior person. 

By learning about cultural norms for all your employees, you show that you respect them. 

9. Strive for open communication.

If you oversee a multicultural team, open communication is key. Let employees know you’re there for them and that you’re open to feedback. 

Host meetings where team members can openly share feedback, which is also a great time to congratulate them on a job well done or offer tips for improvement. Additionally, rephrase what an employee tells you so they know you’re listening, and set the tone for positive communication. 

TipTip: For more advice on leading a multicultural or international team, read the full report on the University of Virginia Darden’s website.

Adam Uzialko contributed to the writing and research in this article.

Image Credit:

Gearstd/Shutterstock

Kylie Ora Lobell
Business News Daily Contributing Writer
Kylie Ora Lobell is a business and human resources writer who has written for LegalZoom, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), WeWork, Mastercard, and Visa. Additionally, she creates marketing content for law firms and covers personal finance topics. She has been published in New York Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.