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Leading a Multicultural Team

Some cultures prefer their leader to operate as a facilitator among equals (for example, Scandinavians). Others favour a ‘director’ leading from the front (for example, East Asia). A Swedish manager might be reluctant to give their staff the solution to a problem, preferring they figure it out themselves…


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This Pivot: How we can meet the challenge, and build on the opportunities, that a multicultural work force presents us.

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Some cultures prefer their leader to operate as a facilitator among equals (for example, Scandinavians). Others favour a ‘director’ leading from the front (for example, East Asia).

A Swedish manager might be reluctant to give their staff the solution to a problem, preferring them to figure it out themselves. A Japanese employee will probably not ask their boss a question unless they are sure they know the answer.

Of course, neither approach is ‘wrong’.

But that doesn’t make the job of leading a multicultural team any easier!

Multiple Correct Views

Here’s an interesting thought experiment cited by Nirmalya Kumar, Professor of Marketing at Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Singapore Management University. He asked people from a wide range of nationalities to imagine that they were in a sinking boat with their mother, their spouse and their child. None of those people could swim, and only one could be rescued.

As the only swimmer, who would they save?

The answers reveal how people diverge in their fundamental assumptions across different cultures. To quote the professor:

Participants from the Middle East or China usually chose their mother. Their argument? 'My mother gave me life and that is irreplaceable. By comparison, I can always have another spouse or child.'

Participants from the United States usually chose their spouse. Their reasoning: 'My spouse is my partner for life. In contrast, my mother has already had a full life, and I can always have more children.'

Participants from India and some European countries usually chose their child, the logic being that the child represents the future and has most of his or her life ahead of them. They often reassured me that, in any case, their mother and spouse would also wish them to save the child.

There is no correct answer to the question: individuals hold different views of reality and, of course, those views are culturally influenced.

(As we might expect, the professor notes that not everyone within a culture answers the same).

Here’s another example (taken from here).

In the Indonesian cultural context, confrontation is considered rude, aggressive, and disrespectful. Open disagreement, particularly in a group forum, is strongly avoided. Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational in our culture. We had a meeting with a group of French managers from headquarters, where they went around the table asking each of us: “What do you think about this? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?” At first we were just shocked that we would be put on the spot in a meeting with a lot of people. That is just an insult!

Here’s the French executive’s viewpoint:

Confrontation is part of French culture. The French school system teaches us to first build up our thesis (one side of the argument) and then to build up our anti-thesis (the opposite side of the argument) before coming to a synthesis (conclusion). And this is exactly how we intuitively conduct meetings. On French teams, conflict and dissonance are seen as revealing hidden contradiction and stimulating new thinking. We make our points passionately. We like to disagree openly. We like to say things that shock. And afterwards we feel that was a great meeting and say, “See you next time!” With confrontation you reach excellence, you have more creativity, and you eliminate risk.

If we have both French and Indonesian staff, how do we lead them?

And what happens if we have many other nationalities as well, all with differing cultural attitudes to confrontation (and scores of other issues)?

How do we cope?

It’s Not All Bad News

Having a mixed-culture workforce is far from all bad news for a manager.

We get many benefits:

  • Increased innovation - According to the Harvard Business Review article “How Diversity Can Drive Innovation”, teams that include members from multiple backgrounds and experiences work more creatively to innovate and solve problems. Diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where “outside the box” ideas are heard.
  • Increased creativity - “The more your network includes individuals from different cultural backgrounds, the more you will be creatively stimulated by different ideas and perspectives" according to research by Harvard Business School professor Roy Y.J. Chua. "Importantly, these ideas do not necessarily come from the network members who are culturally different from you.” It seems, just being around people of different cultural backgrounds stimulates our own ability to think creatively.
  • More understanding and respect - Working closely with those from different cultures lets us hear about the world from different perspectives. We learn to be open-minded, flexible and tolerant because these are people we share our coffee breaks and lunchtimes with.
  • Better connections with families and children - It stands to reason that the more diverse the range of cultures we have in our team, the more likely we will match (or closely relate to) the culture of our families and children, which is ultimately good for our centre livelihood. Our centre's cultural celebrations will have much more authenticity too.
  • A chance to learn or strengthen another language - Nothing beats speaking with a native speaker for honing up those new language skills.
  • Delicious treats! - We get to experience all those delicious foods from around the world.

It’s All about Being Flexible

How, then, do we work with a multinational team?

We learn to adapt!

  • We see differences as a source of curiosity - We can ask ourselves why those individuals see things so differently. What in their background, culture or environment could explain their stance? If we marvel at the differences we see, and not judge them, we’ll find endless opportunities for our own personal discovery and growth.
  • We set centre-wide norms for behaviour - As we saw in the examples in the beginning of this Pivot, some cultural norms are diametrically opposed to others (it’s OK to argue with the boss vs. the boss is never wrong). We are never going to be gifted a one-size-fits-all solution for handling culturally diverse staff. A workable option is to explicitly set standards, explain them and apply them. For instance, ‘we speak our minds at meetings’, ‘one conversation at a time’, or ‘we don’t interrupt others’ might be norms that are spelled out. Everyone is expected to follow them because they are the centre norms, not those of a single individual or culture. The norms should be culturally neutral where possible, or negotiated and agreed with all staff.
  • We expect our own assumptions to be challenged - Other cultures may question things we assume to be universal human traits. An example: we might suggest a financial incentive to motivate staff. In some cultures (Sweden) that might be seen as a sign we didn’t trust our employees to put in their best efforts. What we put forward with the best of intentions could end up being interpreted as a sign of mistrust!
  • We accept some inefficiencies (especially at first) - A cross-cultural team needs to understand one another’s differences and work preferences, and that will take time. But once this is achieved, we can expect our team to be more creative as they bring multiple viewpoints to issues and problems.

For any team working in a multicultural environment, there is a risk of cultural clashes. If we bring people from different cultural backgrounds together on our team (and we should), it’s up to us as the manager/leader to actively manage our work environment to minimise that risk.

Learning to work with people from other cultures in order to collaborate creatively is a vital skill in today's business environment.” – Professor Chua, Harvard Business School

Food for Thought…

  • Different cultures can bring completely different perspectives to the workplace.
  • In some cases, different cultures can have completely opposite approaches.
  • There can be many advantages in having a multicultural workforce, including better innovation, creativity, respect and better connections with our families.
  • To handle a multicultural workforce, the first requirement is flexibility.
  • There are ways we can manage to minimise ‘cultural clashes’ including establishing centre norms that all staff agree to abide by.

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