Paul Heilbronner: How to manage multicultural teams

A generation ago, most organisations employed a workforce that was representative of their geography. Today, the world is much smaller – we live in a global economy that is supported by ever-evolving technology which means a multicultural workforce is more common than not. Thankfully.

Diversity in the workplace can be explored from several perspectives. Some consider it with academic or historical context, others debate the politics that sometimes surround it, and nearly everyone can contribute personal experiences. In and amongst all the dialogue however, most would agree that a multicultural workforce is a distinct benefit to an organisation, its customers and the individuals employed there.

Multicultural Benefits

The greatest benefit to having a multicultural workforce is the cross-cultural competency it inherently brings. First, you can be certain to be challenged by one another. Various viewpoints promote deeper product and market knowledge, and a multitude of backgrounds and experiences supports culturally-sensitive customer service issues.

For these and other reasons, multicultural workforces are known to be more productive and, as this article in Fast Company says, more creative. Diverse teams also out-perform competition. A 2015 McKinsey report  found that those in the top 25 percent for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35 percent more likely to have financial returns above their industry average. In another study, published in Economic Geography, the authors concluded that increased cultural diversity increases innovation. Businesses run by culturally diverse leadership teams were found more likely to develop new products than those with homogenous leadership.

The value brought by international minds working together in a shared office or via online tools enhances a business’ capabilities and service delivery, both of which are critically important for providing a satisfying customer experience. While the ideas that come out of global collaboration only increase our level of innovation, a multicultural atmosphere must be managed appropriately.

Multicultural Challenges

While there are many benefits to a multicultural workforce, a diverse environment can come with management challenges. Without careful consideration of the team’s make up and a clear understanding of capabilities and motivation, internal misalignment can happen and negatively impact the work environment, customer interaction, and the bottom line.

The first, and arguably largest, challenge is language fluency. Non-native speakers may struggle to get their points of view heard effectively. This can be a problem in collaborative environments where different members have different native languages. If frustration reaches high enough levels, motivation and morale suffer.

Another challenge that can occur is reliance upon different communication codes and decision-making approaches. According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, different cultures have different opinions on what must be in place before a decision is reached, how long the process may take and how much effort should be used.

Hierarchy and authority are other issues treated differently across various cultures. While it may be acceptable in some cultures for an individual to walk into the CEO’s office and pitch an idea, others require methodical presentations to each level of management first.


Overcoming the Obstacles

While there are challenges to managing a multicultural team, each can be overcome. And the benefits to doing so are many. Here are a few tips to keep your team working well together:

Customise your management style – Within a multicultural team, it’s important to listen and adapt. Ask employees for input and feedback; encourage idea exchanges. Treat people as individuals rather than your thoughts on a cultural group as a whole.

Encourage team dialogue – Strong personal relationships are critically important and anything you can do to foster them is a step in the right direction. Multinational companies have a harder time with this because monthly happy hours or team building events aren’t possible. But weekly team video chats are. And some companies have found success with video gaming tournaments to boost comradery. Try using collaboration tools like Jive and Microsoft Teams as well as social media.

Set clear expectations and rules and communicate them – A clear sense of direction and purpose is important for every individual and improves the effectiveness any one group can achieve. If any confusion arises along the way, intervene early.

Grant autonomy where appropriate – Benefits are inherent to multicultural teams, but you have to let the diversity work. Support their thought processes and creativity while also maintaining an open door policy for anyone who has an idea or wants to express a concern. And remember, reward and recognition for a job well done is not a one size fits all.


Conclusion

While a diverse workforce does require special attention on the part of management, it is very rewarding for the organisation and individual employees. Thoughtful management, ongoing team communication and a respect for differences is the key to maintaining a successful, innovative culture. Multicultural workforces are how the very best ideas are born and solid executions are formed. It’s also how people grow.

About Paul Heilbronner

Paul Heilbronner is EVP Global HR at Axway

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