Entering the room, you can feel the tension. Your multicultural team, representing different company interests, is sitting around the table. One confident young man boldly answers your first question and others look blankly ahead. How can you possibly get this team to accomplish anything if they can’t work effectively together?
One of the greatest challenges in international business expansion is bridging the cultural gap. Team members have to understand how their approach to group dynamics affects others in order to avoid alienation and everyone counting down minutes until the meeting ends.
The multicultural team is one of the most underutilized aspects of international expansions, mergers, and partnerships. In fact, on more than one occasion I have heard frustrated managers refer to their team as “performing” and their role as one of “babysitting”. The challenge for both the team leader and members is to leave behind assumptions and find the unlocked potential of the team’s productivity and usefulness. Here is my advice:
Know the Likely Points of Contention Between Team Members
When various cultures mix, there is likely to be friction. One important issue is how to deal with conflict. A German team member may want to articulate the issue and how it occurred, including assigning fault. Those from indirect communication cultures find this rude and disrespectful. A key ingredient to high-functioning teams is trust, and for most from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Mediterranean area, this directness just lost the trust.
The important thing is to know who is on the team and what can be learned about their native work culture ahead of time to anticipate some of the obvious flash points.
Create a Common Goal
This is especially critical for multicultural teams. The goal helps to create a common set of terms around what needs to be done and what the outcome will be if successful. The clearer the goal, the more likely it will be that the team will perform to reach it.
Establish a Framework for Team Norms
Team leaders often default to the social norming for teams in their home culture. And often little thought it given to how this style is received by team members. A leader from Chile may use storytelling to emotionally connect with team members. But the Canadian may be annoyed by how long it is. The direct communicators in the team will likely tune out many anecdotes. There is middle ground, but it must be defined in order for both direct and indirect communicators to speak and interpret for the same situational understanding. Perhaps this means limiting the amount of anecdotes or explaining that this is a useful tool to understand perspective.
It is also important to establish a way to make decisions as a team. Must decisions be unanimous? Is there a point where discussion will be stopped and the team votes? Or does the team leader take the input and make the decision? Never assume that other cultures make decisions in a similar way.
Head Off Issues Early
If the team is underperforming, then it is better to investigate the root causes sooner rather than later. Issues may have an easy fix such as clearing up a misunderstanding. A common problem is a team member that stays quiet. It may be helpful to forewarn this person that you will be calling on them and to be prepared to share their perspective. It is also helpful to give this person permission to give an answer contrary to others in the team.
A word of caution: if there are indirect communicators in the team, DO NOT bring up team communication issues in an open team meeting. Indirects do not like discussing issues in a group setting (again, it’s considered rude). Ask questions of individuals in private instead.
Take Advantage of Diverse Perspectives and Strengths
This is why a multicultural team can be so powerful! Instead of seeing an issue or opportunity from a limited set of assumptions, those from a diverse background can bring ideas and solutions from more varied experiences. There may be a best practice from Brazil that no one in Italy has ever heard of before. In confronting similar issues, there are infinite ways to approach solving them. When an unexpected solution is presented, be sure to ask questions to understand the underlying assumptions that led to that conclusion.
Stay Positive & Focus on Progress (Patience)
Multicultural teams may be more challenging to manage. But as the team leader, it helps greatly to encourage participation and stay positive with the team about any progress. That doesn’t mean sacrificing results or progress towards results. Building the team’s effectiveness may take a little more time.
Overall, building an effective multicultural team is much better than languishing in frustration. Instead of underestimating the contributions from collaboration, focus on maximizing team’s performance. This means balancing the interests, communication styles and cultural assumptions.
Onward & upward!