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Why Leaders Need to Better Understand Their Multicultural Teams

Multicultural Teams
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko:

Plenty of data says diversity of thought, experience and people is good for business. With global immigration and the more widespread application of remote work, many leaders have come to truly see the value of having multicultural teams.

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Companies that value cultural diversity in the workplace hire people from all walks of life based on their role-relevant skills and background, regardless of their religion or world view, colour, ethnicity, or country of origin.

However, for companies to harness the power of having a culturally diverse team, leaders need to better understand their multicultural teams.

But how can this be done? Is there a right way when it comes to managing multicultural teams?

Let's explore the benefits and challenges of multicultural teams so that you as a team leader or team member can truly take advantage of the cultural diversity in your workplace and come to better handle the multicultural teams you're a part of.

What Are the Advantages of Having a Multicultural Team?

There are numerous benefits that a multicultural workforce can bring to a workplace. These advantages include:

  • Access to a wider talent pool. Companies that espouse cultural diversity find themselves at an advantage, especially when it comes to filling roles for highly specialized positions in fiercely competitive industries.

  • More inclusive, supportive and stronger teams. A multicultural workforce fosters inclusivity, understanding, empathy and mutual support because they are able to build relationships with a more diverse group of people with different lived experiences and belief systems.

  • Fresh perspectives, creativity and innovation. The diversity of thought/experience characteristic of multicultural teams fosters creativity and innovation. Employees with different cultural backgrounds are bound to see an issue from several angles and, consequently, provide multiple solutions.

  • Better communication and marketing initiatives. A multicultural staff can significantly aid your company’s expansion into new geographic and demographic territories. Their knowledge, understanding and cultural sensitivity can help a company develop better quality and targeted marketing communication.

  • Opportunities to learn new languages. While being part of a multicultural workforce may not necessarily make one a bona fide multilingual person, it provides an environment for new language learning. Formal study of a language is helpful but nothing beats speaking it. You have much more opportunity to practice new languages in a culturally diverse team, or code-switch and speak your own language.

Maintaining a climate that encourages open discussions, embraces new perspectives, and celebrates innovative ideas is critical when working in global work world of today. These are all necessary ingredients in cultivating strong and productive teams, engaged team members, and a positive work environment.

Managing Multicultural Teams
Photo by Yan Krukov:

What Are the Challenges of Managing Multicultural Teams?

Now that you know the advantages of having multicultural teams, you might be wondering: How does one manage a culturally diverse workforce? What challenges or misunderstandings arise that we must address as leaders?

Managing multicultural teams comes with its own set of difficulties and problems. Not only will you have to deal with language barriers, but you’ll also have to prepare for possible cultural and training blocks.

Diverse employees are socialized with different power dynamics, hierarchical structures and social graces. For example, some folks are more group oriented and others more independent. As a result, challenges arise from various cultural expectations and assumptions you’re likely to encounter when working in a multicultural team.

  • Cultural differences. People of different ethnic or cultural backgrounds all have their own social training around greetings and communication style. People are bound to experience misunderstandings around email etiquette or direct or indirect communication. When these differences are not explored, they can lead to confusion, a lack of cohesion and disengagement.

  • Technical challenges. People from different countries may be exposed to different tech offerings. Therefore, it’s crucial to avoid assuming that everything you take for granted tech-wise is familiar to everyone. This usually means providing necessary training to staff with little to no knowledge about an app or limited experience operating certain equipment.

  • Management and staff relations. There are several different management styles across cultures and the hierarchical or egalitarian nature of the business world depends heavily on the national cultural. Employee expectations in terms of their relationship with their managers, their role in the decision-making process, and workplace dynamics differ widely. It's crucial to identify and understand them so that people don't end up feeling frustrated, confused or angry.

  • Communication styles. People have their own ways of communicating, and this can get magnified when cultural differences enter the picture. For example, Americans may be perceived as too direct or even aggressive, while Asians may appear too passive or even disinterested in company affairs.

  • Team motivation. Attempting to enforce a universal motivation and reward structure often proves unsuccessful in culturally diverse teams. People value different things like time, money or family more than others and a company should try to reflect what matters most to that individual.

How Do You Practice Multicultural Leadership?

Leadership in a multicultural environment comes with a different set of demands. It requires research, diligence, and diplomacy to successfully manage multicultural teams. You need to be determined to understand and develop true empathy for each member of your team. Developing a personal relationship built on mutual respect and trust is the first step.

You must be willing to go the extra mile to discover what motivates every single member of your team, their expectations and frustrations, strengths and weaknesses, as well as their career and personal goals.

In short, you need to possess the following multicultural leadership characteristics:

  • Value-centered - able to see people’s common values and needs as part of a global community

  • Adaptable - culturally sensitive or keenly aware of cultural variations while also being able to address strategic problems and cultural tensions

  • Visionary - possesses a long-term perspective and able to create a meaningful vision of the future, which can be achieved when cultural barriers are overcome

  • Strong communicator - an effective speaker and an even better listener

  • High level of cultural intelligence (CQ) - highly capable of relating to members of different cultures and working effectively with people of different cultural backgrounds

  • Personal relationship builder - can build strong relationships based on mutual respect and trust

As they say, if you want to be understood, seek first to understand.

Having multicultural work teams is a win-win for both employees and employers. They allow us to gain new perspectives, innovate problem-solving techniques, and break into new markets easier.

You too can achieve a strong multicultural team by focusing on the advantages cultural diversity brings to the workplace, and use the challenges to build your team's resilience.

Ready to improve your multicultural workplace? Tough Convos can help.

Contact us for an introductory call to tell us how we can assist.


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