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How to Best Lead a Multicultural or International Team

Business News Daily Editor
Business News Daily Editor

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 both challenging and rewarding.
  • When creating a multicultural team, you should work to break down differences, traverse language barriers and respect one another's cultures.
  • Multicultural teams are highly beneficial and great for businesses.

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.

What is a multicultural team?

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

Oftentimes, it can be difficult to manage a multicultural team spread across the globe. In addition to facing problems all teams encounter – such as resource expenditures, problem solving and confrontation – multicultural teams have a unique set of challenges, Kristin Behfar, a professor at the University of Virginia Darden School Foundation, and her colleagues found in their research. These unique challenges include 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 led multicultural teams. Based on the responses, the researchers developed a few tips for getting the most out of 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 only for you as a manager but also for other employees on the team. Encouraging openness is a must and can truly make a difference in 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 than others. Taking the time to learn about the cultures of your team members can help you relate to them on a personal level and take away some of the stigma associated with different cultures.

2. Minimize the language barrier.

Native speakers should be the 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 members of your team 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 example, offer extra time to proofread material and to 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 (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. This will create a warm and inclusive work environment and allow those who have become accustomed to certain working conditions to continue with their usual working style. It also shows respect and consideration, thereby 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 deal in time for quarterly postings a key objective, or do your team members find it most 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 in it. 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. 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 is much better to focus on work and relationship building than topics that might cause tension.

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. It is always beneficial to not only be considerate but also work to make the workplace a safe and neutral area.

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

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 businesses more inclusive and forward-thinking.

Image Credit: Prostock-Studio / Getty Images
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