Perhaps your company has worked hard to cultivate diversity. Or, maybe you’re part of a multicultural organization that prioritizes the contributions of a diverse workforce. Now, you’re managing a culturally diverse team and you want to maximize the contributions each member can offer.
"The potential for misalignment or different expectations goes up exponentially when you have people coming from different cultural backgrounds," says consultant David Livermore, founder of Cultural Intelligence Center, a cultural intelligence consultancy, and author of Driven by Difference: How Great Companies Fuel Innovation through Diversity. While managing culturally diverse teams requires the same skills to manage teams well in general, there are some particular areas that may need attention, he says.
There’s a fine line between being aware of culture differences and stereotyping, Livermore says. When you paint groups of people with a broad brush, such as thinking that all people from a certain region behave a certain way, you’ve likely crossed it. While it’s a good idea to be aware of certain business norms, being open-minded about your team members and how they prefer to work and communicate will help you manage them better and avoid misconceptions, he says.
"I don’t want to go in and just assume Americans love something different than Germans or that a woman wants something different than a man," he says. Instead, good team managers get to know the individual and his or her style and preferences.
As you do get to know those team members, Livermore says it’s important to note varied communication styles. Some regions may have reputations for being direct and others may favor more deferential ways of communicating. As you get to know your team members, be ready to adapt your own communication so that different styles don’t get in the way of doing good work. As you get to know your team members, you can begin to address differences to overcome differences.
When people are uncomfortable in a situation or if they’re not a native speaker of the language in which a meeting is being conducted, they may be reticent in participating in meetings. Ambushing them or expecting on-the-spot answers and creativity can make things worse, Livermore says. Whenever possible, let team members know what you expect from them and give them time to prepare or respond.
As a team leader, you need to be aware of the roles people play on your team. On multicultural teams, communication challenges can come up and it’s important to make sure they don’t become problematic, says team-building consultant Dieter Reuther, transformation facilitator at Team Dynamics Boston. If you see signs of a project stalling or more interpersonal conflict, it’s time to step in. Having empathy for each of the team members is important to avoid escalating the conflict, he says.
"Being a German in the U.S., I know it myself, some things are just different, and you struggle with them if you work with other people. Somebody might just always be too close or be in your face and you don't like that. Or, some words just have different meanings [that can lead to misunderstanding]," he says.
Reuther’s firm conducts team-building seminars with Lego building blocks. The tactile nature of building something together often helps break down issues that are affecting teams. In one case, the seminar was held with two different teams going through a merger who were experiencing hostility toward one another. By using the bricks to create a three-dimensional business landscape, the teams uncovered attitudes and language and communication styles that were problematic, which led to better awareness and understanding, he says.
That’s not to say that you necessarily need to break out the toy box. But, having team members spend time together outside of the work environment can help foster understanding. It’s also important to periodically check in with team members one-on-one and let them know they can share their challenges candidly with you, he says.