Published : Apr 13, 2018

Managing Multi-Cultural Teams

A lot has been written about preparing for a foreign assignment and the need to understand and appreciate other cultures, but there’s not as much information about the issues you may encounter managing a multi-cultural team, or how to handle them.

Formal cultural training can help avoid many issues; still, you are bound to have some challenges.

Here are some of the most common:

  • Miscommunication between team members
  • Hesitancy among some to express ideas and opinions
  • Differences in multicultural work habits and etiquette
  • The defiant employee who won’t adapt to cultural differences, and be part of the team

Some of these can be avoided, if addressed right at the beginning, before differences become problems.

Getting Everyone Onboard

The most common problem you’ll probably face is miscommunication among team members. In addition to its impact on the team, miscommunication can be a big expense, often resulting in confusion, failure to focus on primary objectives, wasted hours, reduced productivity and hurt feelings.

Obviously, language may be a barrier; but, cultural differences can also be a significant challenge.

Team members from some cultures (North Americans, for example) like to jump right into a meeting without a lot of discussion. Japanese and some other cultures first spend personal time getting to know one another.

North Americans are also generally much more informal than in many other cultures. In some regions arguing and interrupting during meetings, or, being late is normal and not considered offensive. These would be horrifying in other cultures.

Consider having an open, candid discussion with your team; encourage them to talk about how people in their cultures communicate, verbally and non-verbally. Explain that conflicts may actually be misunderstandings, and stress the need for flexibility.

Then set some ground rules, such as one person speaks at a time. Encourage them to follow up with such questions as “Do you mean...” if they don’t understand something.

The Reluctant Employee

As mentioned, some team members may not feel comfortable expressing their ideas and suggestions. This may be a result of language barriers, but it can also be cultural.

In some cultures, employees are trained not to speak during meetings; senior executives do all the talking.

One effective way to draw them out: ask open-ended questions which will encourage them to become part of the discussion. Soon, they’ll feel comfortable voicing their thoughts and opinions.

The Difficult Employee

Sometimes, there is one employee who can’t, or won’t, accept and appreciate the cultural differences of others.

Your first reaction may be to rid yourself of him or her. Don’t give up right away.

First, however, try to understand the cause of the issue. It may be that he or she had a previous bad experience, something that can be resolved. Express your desire, your demand, that everyone be sensitive to one another’s cultures.

If the problem persists, it’s probably time to replace that employee; he or she may be better off and more productive working in an individual work environment.

One last thing to remember; as with virtually every company or team, employees tend to mirror the leader. Live by your own words.

Working in cross-cultural teams can be educational and rewarding, but, it can also be frustrating and irritating. Be patient, understanding and flexible, and things generally work out.

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