6 Common Pitfalls In Multicultural Teams - and how to deal with themOct 31, 2023 - 5 min read
A shared vision and shared set of values is the key to success in managing multicultural teams. Combine that with a high level of trust and embrace different perspectives and you have a very solid foundation.
The following writeup contains reflections from a management perspective on working in a multicultural team, which I see as both a big challenge, but also a huge advantage.
Combining diverse skill sets with cultural diversity is an advantage if done with success containing a shared vision and shared set of values.
The manager plays a central role and holds a lot of responsibility when it comes to turning diversity into an advantage. Both in terms of the cultural and skill diversity.
An environment with a high level of trust is key. In order to succeed in creating such an environment the need to facilitate a shared understanding of the strengths of different backgrounds cannot be underestimated.
Bridging the cultural gaps and fostering understanding so that it is viewed as a strength, by focusing on the positive things, where the team's collective intelligence is the focus. Highlighting the individual's strengths and weaknesses in a positive manner. Showcasing the strengths in the diverse team and diverse skills-set, so not everything thinks they have to fit into the same box.
To get people to be at their natural best, they need to be in an environment that makes them dare to take chances. That requires a high degree of trust.
The leader needs to work hard to get to a place where every single team member feels safe enough to offer their ideas, take risks, solve complicated problems, work together, and complement each other.
Diversity and differences can be the reason for a lot of conflict in the workplace. Often conflicts are rooted in different perspectives or understandings, maybe even knowledge.
Having a dialogue about a topic within one's profession is supposed to highlight and enlighten the different views and more often than not people work towards a shared goal.
It is less about being right, and more about finding the right solution. Usually, I preach that we should focus on providing knowledge, not proving knowledge. Articulating viewpoints is always a good exercise.
The different perspectives should be regarded as a learning opportunity, where creativity, innovation, and problem-solving thrive.
In my experience, the majority of the issues and conflicts at work can be traced back to communication issues. In a multicultural team, miscommunication is often related to language barriers, cultural references, assumptions, and so on.
Cultural nuances influence our communication and with different backgrounds and perspectives, it can be hard to follow when it gets complicated. Being aware of this combined with a curious and explorative mindset, usually enables the options for deeper and more detailed communication which leads to a better understanding in the end.
When working in tech, where communication can be flawed, discussing a relevant work-related topic can as a bare minimum help each person involved understand where they stand in the discussion and even more help with providing a framework of argument to support the opinion being held. It is about exchanging knowledge.
So, when we communicate with colleagues, we need to be aware and question our assumptions and beliefs. It requires that we pay attention to detail because our assumptions can seem invisible to us.
My friend's favorite quote says it all.
Assumptions is the mother of all fuckups.
Throughout countless encounters with multicultural teams, I've started to see a pattern of repeated mistakes. They are often centered around a lack of understanding and knowledge about how cultures and people differ. It is key to stay informed, research, and learn about cultural differences especially how they are expressed in a professional environment. So, that is usually where I start.
Another key area of focus, when working with people from other cultures than my own, I to try to keep a laser-sharp focus on accurate and precise communication. Being extremely clear, and explicit, avoiding cultural biases, and being very careful about assumptions.
Here are the 6 most common pitfalls from my point of view.
Perceptions of Authority can vary across different cultures. It primarily revolves around the concept of belief in authority and how individuals interact with a person of authority. In some cultures, the hierarchy seems rather flat, whereas in other cultures the opposite is true.
Feedback Culture is also something that I experience differently. In some cultures, negative feedback is rarely expressed, while in others the feedback can be very direct.
Of course, personality type does play a huge role in this too, and the level of trust.
As a leader, creating a culture of feedback is important.
Being able to receive feedback is extremely important and will contribute to a higher level of trust and shared understanding. Listening and encouraging it will lead to more while being defensive or responding negatively will make people stop.
Asking for help can in some cultures or environments be a sign of weakness, lack of skill or not being good enough at one's job. You do not want silent members in the team, who struggle on their own and feel that they cannot raise their voice and ask for help. This again requires a high level of trust within the team, but the opposite can lead to bad results, lack of growth, and low job satisfaction.
Job security is also one of the key elements of the leader's communication. I think it is important to make it very clear where people stand in terms of the situation, termination, and so on. Some people need a lot more safety than others and often more than the leader thinks. Just overcommunicate.
But remember, transparency is not about giving all the information, it is about giving enough information to understand the context.
Decision-making process is somewhat related to authority. Some cultures tend to look towards the leader for decisions to be made, while others expect to be included in the decision-making process.
With a low level of trust, involving people in decision-making processes can sometimes create an uncomfortable situation, because the expectations are different. Also, making a lot of decisions without involving the team can lead to a lack of trust, depending on the situation and the culture.
Language barrier is an issue no matter how good we are at speaking other languages. Sometimes less than others, but speaking and writing in our native language will always be more precise and easier. Especially with all the assumptions and cultural common understanding that comes with it.
For this to be actually applied in a team setting, it is an absolute must that there is a shared vision and the values align. This is where I consider the leader to be the main facilitator of inspiration and culture.
I am in a lucky situation where I've had the chance to connect with people where we could openly talk about the differences in leadership between the Danish culture and where they come from.
The chance to discuss these topics and understand different perspectives does without a doubt make me a better leader.
And based on that I keep my unshakeable belief that the difference between people's personalities, cultural backgrounds, experiences, and so on, WILL be used as an advantage.
It is my unwavering vision and I am keen on creating a culture where these values thrive. Turning it into a superpower, where the collective intelligence can grow with the team, to create a place where it is fun to work, and how different perspectives are welcomed and contribute to personal growth and great innovative solutions.
I will end by encouraging you to reflect on how you deal with the different personalities, whether it is rooted in cultural differences skill-set, or personality.