Managing Multicultural Teams In The Workplace: Challenges And Opportunities

[Updated: June 21, 2023] 

Organizations are rapidly increasing the use of teams from around the globe. When companies branch out, they can assemble an impressive talent pool with unique perspectives. Whether these employees are working remotely or have packed their bags to move to a new land, this global revolution means the presence of several cultures in the workplace.

Achieving a diverse workforce and succeeding in the marketplace can be challenging. Leaders must find ways to overcome cultural differences to get the best out of their team and ensure everyone feels included and appreciated. Here we will discuss those challenges and how to manage culturally diverse teams in the workplace.

What are Multicultural Teams, and How do They Benefit Organizations

Multicultural teams are teams that work together within one company combining cultures from around the world. When companies want to establish or maintain their presence in other regions of the world, they usually have members of these cultures on their teams, helping to create products and services and devising marketing plans to promote them. Culturally diverse teams with experienced multicultural leaders have been proven to be more creative and innovative and produce higher profits.

The Challenge of Managing Multicultural Teams in the Workplace

The challenge of managing a multicultural team is similar across all industries and countries. Many of my clients are concerned about:

  • Navigating working relationships across cultural differences
  • Wondering if they should conform to the culture of the leader, the organization, or the culture
  • Biases regarding different cultures
  • Hiring experienced multicultural leaders
  • Ethical concerns and considerations
  • Understanding communication styles, cues, and preferences, and how to make sense of differences

When companies fail to address the differences within their work teams, conflict and frustrations can build. For example, employees in certain countries aren’t used to working overtime or may tune out after hours. While in other countries, employees are willing to stay past closing time and answer emergency calls even after they have left work for the day.

Here are some of the most critical challenges:

Conflicts with Communication

Conflicts with communication

While meeting with team members from diverse cultures, some may willingly give their opinions and share ideas. Others defer to management and find it disrespectful to speak out. The use of slang can confuse multicultural settings. When communicating via email and text messaging, the language and context from one culture to another may not be received as intended.

Differing Ideas About Decision-Making

Many employees believe in taking their time and analyzing issues before making decisions. Other employees are more decisive and are quick to make decisions. Some cultures wait for leaders to advise the plan of action and rarely veer far from the plan. Other cultures look for input from team members at all levels and welcome individuality and autonomy.

Methods of Motivation

Managers must understand the motivations of their team members to keep them engaged. Most companies establish and follow one reward system that is used across the board. This becomes a problem when you consider that while some cultures appreciate bonuses and salary increases, others are more motivated by encouragement or publicly acknowledging a job well done.

How do You Successfully Manage Multicultural Teams?

Invest time in building relationships within the team

Managing multicultural teams needs a multifaceted approach that involves finding approaches to match each individual. Each culture working within your organization has beliefs and communication styles all its own. Leading these teams is a relationship-focused endeavor.

You must invest time in building relationships within the group. Building networks in the relevant cultures outside the team and organization is essential. Remember that you can’t just expect the entire team to adjust to your style.

Dr. Ruth Wageman, in her exceptional book, Senior Leadership Teams, masterfully lays out the vital elements of an effective team. The core conditions of an effective team create the circumstances for which the team will understand why they must attend to their cultural differences and similarities.

All teams, including multicultural teams facing added complexity, must build a compelling purpose, meaning they are a team assembled to make a unique contribution that is challenging, consequential, and clear. When they build a compelling purpose, there is no doubt what the critical tasks are or the added value they seek to create.

With such clarity, a leader can assemble the right people; team members with the appropriate skills, diversity, and teamwork capabilities required to fulfill their purpose. When you have the right people, they can balance their differences but not be so far apart that they can understand each other’s perspectives. Balanced and different views are what lead to exceptional team creativity and problem-solving, especially when it comes to multicultural teams.

Wageman also discusses constructing a “real team” that knows who is and is not a team member as an essential condition for creating an effective team. It sounds simple enough, but research points to as little as 25% of teams accurately knowing who is on the team.

This may be due to rotating membership which leads to confusion. Still, an effective team works together long enough to learn how to work together, especially if they’re genuinely interdependent, which is a must to be a real team. Interdependence requires interaction and sharing of resources to achieve their common purpose. No one can go it alone and be successful.

Ultimately, to create an effective multicultural team, you have to be flexible and adapt your style. At the same time, you must work within your organization’s general business conduct, ethical mandates, and policies.

Let’s discuss some of the elements required to manage a multicultural team:

1. Using Cultural Intelligence to Overcome Language and Cultural Barriers

Everyone has their own communication style; however, it’s important to find one common language every member can use to communicate efficiently. It’s also recommended that you inspire your team members to pick up phrases in each of the native languages of each member. Encourage your team to always get clarification, even asking that something be repeated if necessary.

To overcome cultural barriers, hold informal get-togethers for the team. Use the time to learn more about each other’s cultures, including their foods, holidays, and customs.

2. Communicating with Cultural Styles in Mind

Different cultures have their own style of communication, including body language and gestures. Seek to understand each colleague’s culture’s communication styles, language barriers, and rules, and stick to these rules when communicating with team members.

Learn more about context. High-context cultures like China and Brazil find context as meaningful as spoken words. Low-context cultures, including Germany and the US, involve more direct communication.

3. Align Decision-Making With Your Strategy

A misunderstood or unexplained business strategy makes it nearly impossible to lead others to THE destination, and even more so with a multicultural team where communication is key. Leaders steeped in strategy assume their team is too, yet those directs often confess a lack of knowledge or understanding.

Connect the work to your ultimate aim in order to align decision-making with your strategy. Discuss your strategy and vision with the team. When your team understands the long-term plans, you can expect more accountability, ownership, and action.

4. Establishing Multicultural Training

Establishing Multicultural Training

Training sessions help your team members overcome the apparent challenges with multicultural teams. They can learn more about each other, their cultures, and their beliefs. Include lessons to help them decrease cultural barriers, recognize and avoid stereotypes, and improve social and listening skills.

5. Address Perceived Ethical Issues

Often, business practices one team may find unethical are not considered unethical in another culture. As a leader, when this issue comes up, the best practice is to follow your organization’s written general business principles/practices. Whenever you’re in doubt as what behavior complies with your code of ethics or anti-corruption policies, etc., consult your policy owners or legal representation.

6. Acknowledging Common Stereotypes and Working to Avoid Them

Sometimes people attempting to work with other cultures use stereotypes to help them understand differences. Do not make assumptions about how an entire culture works. Regardless of their native culture, each person has their own identity and personality. When you hire experienced multicultural leaders they can help other team members understand cultural diversity.

7. Practice Empathy

Empathetic leaders will be more effective in achieving successful diverse, and inclusive teams. Make sure you regularly check in with each team member. Actively listen to your employees, attempt to understand their feelings, and put yourself in their shoes. It’s a wonderful way to understand minor issues before they become larger ones.

8. Setting Clear Expectations

Setting Clear Expectations

All cultures operate differently and may have different expectations. They also think of authority and hierarchy in different ways. To enable team cohesion, be clear about who makes decisions, the decision-making process, who can contribute input and project deadlines.

9. Knowing How to Deliver Feedback and Criticism

Be direct and respectful when giving feedback and criticism. Ensure that your criticism is constructive. Also, hold your feedback meetings in private. Point out positive behaviors and accomplishments. Positively construct your message in the appropriate style for that team member.

10. Ensuring Diverse Leadership

Make sure that everyone in your organization is represented at the highest level. Consider not only culture but also sex, race, age, and gender. Hire managers that have a background in multicultural management when possible.

11. Offering Language Training

Offer Language Training

Provide non-native speakers with the language training they need to communicate and collaborate successfully with others. Equip them with what they need to feel that they belong and can contribute to meetings and projects.

12. Regularly Meet with Each Team Member

First, get to know them individually and learn about their life, career path, and more. Not only will you get to know more about their personality and culture, but you’ll also learn about specialized skills that can help the organization.

13. Encouraging Open Communication

Encourage team members to voice their opinions and keep the lines of communication open. Set aside time in each team meeting to get the viewpoints of each member.

14. Setting up Team Building Activities

Schedule happy hours, outings, birthday celebrations, and more to help team members bond. In addition, team building exercises will help them better communicate and find commonalities.

15. Handling Conflicts and Issues As Soon as They Arise

Conflict happens in all teams. It’s inevitable when people are tasked to work together. Call a meeting to address conflicts immediately, considering the different cultural perspectives involved. Listen to all parties involved, take notes, and decide on the best course of action.

What is Leadership’s Role in Managing Multicultural Teams?

Leaders are responsible for setting the tone in the workplace

Leaders are responsible for setting the tone in the workplace. They should work to appreciate the differences and values of each culture. Take the time to meet regularly with your directs to discuss your team members’ problems.

Look for solutions to problems or methods to manage them. Work on gaining cultural intelligence and encourage your teams to do the same by setting up cultural training. The leadership of any organization working across distinct cultures should keep the lines of communication open.

Talk to your team members and learn about any difficulties they are having. When problems are identified, it’s also best to include the team in finding solutions to manage issues. The most important thing leaders can do is develop cultural intelligence focused on cross-cultural training and clarifying expectations.

Master Multicultural Team Management

Diverse teams are essential. They provide unique insights, bring unique experiences, and can apply innovative approaches to increase team performance. Multicultural teams may bring challenges, but overcoming them is possible when managed with sensitivity and respect.

Leading multicultural teams is relationship-focused work, so you must invest your time in building relationships within the team, as well as networks in the relevant cultures that are outside the team/organization.

Remember that understanding your own leadership style and being flexible is the first step in making conscious decisions about how to adapt to the team. Understanding and accepting cultural backgrounds will help you to manage a multicultural team successfully. Find a cultural guide or resource – a trusted colleague from a given culture or an online resource that helps contrast cultures.

Diverse teams from different cultural backgrounds place special demands on leaders, but they also can provide the greatest opportunities. If you need help managing multicultural teams, schedule a call today, and let’s talk!

Are you leading a multicultural team? Skip the learning curve, book a FREE discovery call.

About The Author

Brent Mullins is a Certified Executive Coach serving successful senior leaders in global organizations to create positive, sustained change and achieve breakthrough performance. Brent’s extensive real-life experience includes executive leadership serving as Global Head of Human Resources at Fortune 200 companies and 25+ years in leadership roles. His expertise in navigating complex differences in assumptions, values, beliefs, and core culture is at the heart of his work.

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