The Key to Leading a Multicultural Team

Published on 2014-07-24

Source: Max Klingensmith @ Flickr
OVER THE YEARS, I’ve managed different team formats. Some of the teams have been from the same country – China. Other teams have been comprised of a range of cultures – Americans, British, Chinese and Danish. What I soon realised was that when handled properly, a multicultural team is a great asset, due to addition of different opinions. But when handled poorly, a multicultural team can reduce collaboration and trust between team members, and this can have serious consequences.
What is the most critical considerations when building a cross-cultural team? I have summed up a few considerations:
First address the differences
Internal communication can be challenging when colleagues are from the same culture. This challenge is more pronounced when members come from different cultures. Confusion and discomfort can result due to different work practices and habits. For example, a Danish colleague once asked me why her Chinese colleagues would continuously ask her to report back on the progress of tasks that they had assigned to her. These emails would also CC many of her colleagues. In Danish culture there is a level of independence and responsibility when completing tasks, and having managers looking over her shoulder made her very uneasy. This colleague told me that when Danes have problems with tasks midway then they will take the initiative to find a solution. In short, she didn’t appreciate the continuous monitoring of her progress.
This level of reporting is different between the Danish and Chinese cultures, and is related to the differences in hierarchical relationships in Eastern and Western cultures. With Western cultures, there would be a lot more background provided at the onset of a project, than is the case with Chinese culture. As a result, Chinese communication, especially to the Westerner, can appear less logical and structured.

This is not good or bad. But for Chinese working within an international workplace, it is recommended that they make an extra effort when communicating with non-Chinese, particularly at the beginning of a project. For example, after an international meeting I debriefed two participants – two Chinese. I was surprised to find out that they had very good ideas, but didn’t share these during the meeting. As a result of that experience, I started a rule with my global team that everyone must contribute an opinion for two minutes during the Q&A section of our meetings. The outcome of this requirement was I was able to elicit opinions from previously silent participants.

If you are leading a multicultural team, you must be aware of two common errors. The first is cultural blindness, where you ignore the cultural differences, and as a result the company’s home country’s culture dominates. This was very much the case for a lot of foreign companies entering China, and is now being repeated as Chinese company expand abroad. In both cases, the local staff strongly rejected the management style.
Stanford Graduate School of Organisation and Dispute Resolution Research Professor, Margaret A Neale, said that it is incorrect to expect the conflict to disappear, but rather it is likely to intensify if not confronted. As a result, says Neale, team leaders must be vigilant and take preventive measures before the problem develops beyond control.
The second misunderstanding is the belief that multiculturalism only brings problems. To the seasoned manager this seems absurd, since building a creative team requires diverse frames of minds. One just needs to look at the founding of the United States of America by immigrants, and it’s continued innovation in social reform, politics, and technology, which has led to its current day prosperity. But cross-cultural differences, once recognised, can be used to build prosperity, as long as conflict can be reduced.
So how can we reduce these cultural barriers?
Trust resolves conflict
There are a number of analysis tools, such as MBTI, HBDI, and EQi, amongst many others, that can help in better understanding personality differences and resolve disagreements. Shared goals can be more easily created and cooperation reached, particularly in relation to task-based conflict, and this clear path builds trust. In cross-cultural teams, conflict is inevitable, because of differences in culture and values ​​are deeply rooted. But trust is a good way to resolve a potential cultural conflicts, therefore focus on building trust from the get-go.
More communication to overcome conflict
Not everyone ‘listens’ in the same way. Some cultures prefer more structured objective information from the beginning, to understand a problem, whereas some cultures use hints and imply what is thought. In this indirect method of communication there is a higher need for apperception of ideas in relation to the context of the discussion.
Either way, both in these low and high context cultures, ‘more’ and not ‘less’ regular feedback, both face-to-face and electronically, will help to overcome conflict.
And finally, when times do get tough and there is conflict, I strongly recommend face-to-face meetings. If this is not possible, due to geographic locations, I encourage teams to meet once a year or more often, which will assist in the more frequent online communication.