The basics of managing multicultural teams
Diversity is almost always an asset. In many Western companies, managing multicultural teams is pretty much the norm these days. With the 21st century’s global movement of people and increased connectedness through tech, we’re blessed with a larger pool of talent to source from than ever before.
There are some sensitivities in this area, and some political leanings can see multiculturalism through a negative lens. But generally, it’s a positive thing in a business environment, bringing in new perspectives, experiences and problem-solving skills if approached correctly.
In fact, performance data backs this up.
According to McKinsey, diversity correlates positively with better financial performance. That’s across both ethnic and gender splits. There are nuances of course, and thousands of research hours are spent looking into ways this trend manifests.
There are also strong links between demographic diversity (variety in ethnicity, nationality, gender, etc.) and cognitive diversity. Cognitive diversity means having a range of approaches to problem-solving enabled by different experiences and backgrounds - think of it as having different lenses to the view the world through. It’s an equally important attribute for companies to have so they can avoid unknown ‘blind spots’ where they lack perspective in certain sectors.
So having a diverse set of people is a boon to many businesses. But you can’t always just assemble a group and expect them to be successful straight away.
You have to manage your people properly and empathetically. You need to understand cultural and linguistic challenges to smooth out communication. Below you’ll find a few strategies for managing multicultural teams, whether that’s distributed remotely, mixed together in a busy office, or a combination of both.
We’ll begin with looking at what multiculturalism is in an organizational context.
What is multiculturalism and how does it relate to managing multicultural teams?
Multiculturalism, in a business context, refers to organizations that are set up to support members from different cultures, backgrounds and demographics. These organizations allow and encourage people of all categories to exist and thrive within them.
There are different levels of intentionality within multiculturalism, though.
Mere acceptance of multiple cultures means a company hires people from outside its cultural majority - this is a familiar sight throughout many Western countries, especially those in dense metropolitan areas that attract a wide range of people.
A truly multicultural company, though, is one that encourages and embraces its internal diversity, building management structures that give everyone the same opportunities to grow, contribute and share in the success of the company.
That second one is something to aim for, so here’s some strategies for managing multicultural teams to make your diverse company a success.
Get comfortable with the communication spectrum
There’s a vast range of ways in which humans communicate with one another. Across cultures, these methods get rather complex. So before taking on the challenge of managing multicultural teams, you have to think about not just what you’re saying, but how you’re saying it.
Non-verbal communication is a really important part of understanding one another that we often take for granted. This is especially different in the remote work age, where video calls are the closest thing we can get to face-to-face interaction. No matter what tech evangelists espouse, the video call loses a lot of information we normally exchange with each other. Subtle movements in our bodies and arms don’t come across through the screen, and the strangely exhausting need to maintain eye contact when on camera (‘webcam contact’) can make interaction more awkward than usual.
Some people prefer written comms, especially if there are language differences. Understanding and speaking a foreign language is often more difficult when done verbally than through the written word, as you don’t have time to process things when they’re said quickly. So if you know that to be the case, don’t tax non-native speakers unnecessarily by speaking to them when an email would suffice. Their limited mental energy will be better served elsewhere in their role.
If you’ve got team members with different communication styles, understanding them is the first step you should take before dealing with any of the more culture-specific issues that come up.
You’ll find more detail on cross-cultural communication in our blog post on the topic.
Seek assistance to bridge language barriers
Even though there’s been some incredible technological leaps in the last few years that can translate entire paragraphs in milliseconds, you do need to be careful if you do decide to cross the language barrier. Speaking to someone in their native language can really build a bridge between you that might not happen otherwise. Just don’t be tempted to use shortcuts when you do it.
You can always find short phrases to share in other languages to use in daily chat. Google Translate and Apple’s iOS translate app can be used for a fun bit of rapport-building as you say “hi" or ask “how are you doing?” to your international coworkers. It’s a nice way to show you care about them and are interested in their culture.
But don’t rely on this for much more than a brief interaction. Translation apps are notorious for doing a pretty poor job - their mechanical word-for-word replacement style often misses the context and meaning of a sentence as a whole. At best, your message might seem awkward or nonsensical. At worst, it could completely miss the mark and land with an offensive tone. (Also, you’re at risk of setting up expectations of ongoing communication in a language you don’t speak - don’t try to fool anyone that you’re not using tech assistance.)
In situations where you need to share in-depth or technical information with someone who doesn’t speak your language, your best move is to get help from a native speaker. Whether that’s someone from within the company or a contractor specializing in translation, having a native human to understand what you’re trying to say and translate appropriately can be a life-saver. This goes especially for anything that’ll be shared in public.
It might incur a cost to obtain someone skilled, but if they can understand the cultural nuances and linguistic quirks that can easily trip you up, they’re worth getting - for the sake of both efficiency and diplomacy.
Other ways to operationalize for language barriers are to normalize the act of politely asking people to repeat themselves (it’s a way to learn and gain clarity), using visual illustration of concepts wherever possible, and factoring in translation time when planning cross-language projects.
Speak openly about cultural differences
It’s usually a good idea to consider and discuss how team members work. Some prefer working alone vs. working in a group, some like consistent feedback while some like being left to get on with things, and so on. Rather than forcing employees to work to a rigid doctrine, you’ll find that productivity often goes up when these different sorts of work styles are taken into account. Pretending differences don’t exist is a recipe for mediocrity and poor cultural fit.
This applies for cultural differences, too.
Speaking openly is easier said than done, of course. When lack of openness affects entire projects and departments, though, it becomes a must.
In traditionally more closed cultures, like the United Kingdom, Finland and Japan, this orderly and polite way of managing can have its upsides: structure, reliability, and lack of open conflict to distract the workforce. Watch any Shakespearean tragedy or Hollywood comedy, however, and you’ll find the same trope over and over: uncomfortable secrets swept under the rug will inevitably surface, again, ruinously.
Cultural issues are ignored at your peril.
For example, an HBR report on Managing Multicultural Teams begins with a story familiar to anyone who’s worked across borders in the last few years:
"When a major international software developer needed to produce a new product quickly, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the United States. From the start the team members could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The Americans thought the work could be done in two to three weeks; the Indians predicted it would take two to three months. As time went on, the Indian team members proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production process, which the American team members would ﬁnd out about only when work was due to be passed to them. Such conﬂicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this case they arose from cultural differences."
Imagine how expensive clashes like these can be when they’re left to fester unseen.
What holds people back from highlighting them? Most of the time, it’s fear. Fear of offending, but also being misunderstood or even facing potential punishment.
This fear isn’t entirely unfounded. Most of us know the power of an offhand comment taken out of context that leads to someone getting fired.
Here’s the thing - it’s not offensive to suggest that certain groups tend to do things certain ways (the existence of thousands of anthropology and sociology researchers would back this up). To deny this is to deny culture. Behaviors and tendencies can be pointed out sensitively, when appropriate, without negative consequences.
In some cases, one culture’s methods may simply be more suited to the project at hand than another’s. Difficult decisions may be needed to override ingrained behaviors, but with decisive, structured and empathetic communication, this can be done smoothly - just make sure it’s done early enough in the project timeline to identify any issues that come up.