Some advice for managing multicultural workforce:

Managing a multicultural workforce: It is about respect and understanding

In mid-2015, I became the project director of Cultural Infusion (a multicultural workforce). The job settlement happened very quickly and my first project was about developing an educational music app to help kids know more about “Inter-Cultural Understanding”. Back to the time, we had a Learning Strategist from the US, a developer from Japan and a webmaster from Iran and one web developer, illustrator and game designer, based here in Melbourne! Previously, I had managed teams of 50+ people and I thought this will be a similar experience, but I was wrong! There were some new challenges for me! We agreed to have our weekly meetings (called ‘sprint’ meetings), on Wednesday nights around 10:30 pm in Melbourne time! And while starting the first meeting, I realized that I am experiencing a new challenge on how to manage leadership and cultural diversity! Different time zones were only a minor issue, but the language barrier between us as well as different work ethics were other challenges. Slow internet connection and poor Skype sound quality and dropouts around 11:00 pm were making it even harder. 

I started reading more about leadership in multicultural teams and it opened new horizons for me. We ended up delivering a fantastic project which won multiple awards including Tech diversity award and best educational app award. This could not be done without believing in diversity in everyday life and valuing our diversity as well as a CEO who deeply believes in the value of our work! 

While globalization has proven to be boon for the economy, it has also resulted in the formation of multicultural teams. With the increasing mobility of people on a global scale has triggered this furthermore (Ors and Soğancılar, 2018).

According to Harvard Business Review (2018) studies reveal that culturally diverse teams can facilitate better results which are overall a good sign but there are certain challenges attached to it. Owing to the comprehensive information these teams possess, these are capable of being more innovative as they can brainstorm in different dimensions and perspectives. But this also makes the multicultural team more prone to conflicts and their difference in opinion can backfire for the organizations. Moreover, when managers or leaders are unaware and don’t know how to handle such situations, cultural diversity can restrain a team’s creative performance (Jang, 2018).

Recruit for diversity but then expect everyone to “fit in” to your company’s culture.

Understanding the Multicultural team:

If you are working in a team of people from different ethnic, linguistic or belief background, you might have seen that the team settings can be different in a multicultural team :

  • A team may have members from different cultural backgrounds. This may also include ex-pats or ethnic minorities working together in the same country.
  • A team may have members who come from many countries but rarely meet up in person.
  • Virtual teams that have members from various countries working through electronic devices but do not meet in person.

The Challenges of managing a multicultural workforce

In a previous research study from Diversity Atlas, it has been said that Cultural diversity has 4 main pillars; Ethnicity, Languages, Country or birth and worldviews.  Teams that are quite diverse culturally, are more likely to encounter difficulties while communicating.

Kulik (2014) claimed that diversity management can deliver organizational benefits but only if it is managed effectively. However, when the increasing diversity at work is not being managed effectively, it can result in lower revenues, higher costs, and greater disruptions to business operations (Guillaume et al., 2013). The reason often being the language barrier and the varied styles in which the members of that team are trying to communicate (Adler, 2002). As groups become more and more diversified, it is understandable that the lack of consensus will stifle the growth of group norms and working style. This can lead to miscommunication.

Cultural differences are deep-rooted in the psyche of an individual, therefore impossible to predict or dispense with, making it easier for conflict to arise in. Conflict in a culturally diversified group is inversely co-related with its performance as a team.

So, what to do?

Literature is rife with ample references about differences in cultures and its supposed influence on the compatibility and performance of groups. However, there is no certain consistency with which this influence could be predicted. Instead, good leadership has time and again proved to be the conclusive factor determining the performance of a multicultural research team. Leadership that is sensitive towards diverse cultural norms is successful in motivating the group to work together and directing it towards a more desirable outcome. The importance of workforce management and cultural diversity management is not a matter of question (Friedemann et al, 2008).

According to Day, Dosa, and Jorgensen (1995) crucial engines provide fuel to credible teamwork, the leadership of the team, in-person interaction and conscientious team members. It is also extremely important to have a constant stream of communication among team members to create empathy and understanding from an acquaintance. Likewise, Jayanthi and Rajandaran (2014) acknowledged the role of attributes like tolerance, empathy, respect, flexibility, open-mindedness and communication and positive approach. They emphasized that regular inter-personal exchange between team members will make them more tolerant and respectful of each other’s culture and values. It will make it easy for them to be more open towards adjusting and adapting to the diverse work environment.

The Bottom line

The possibility of conflict is perpetual amongst any group of people. However, good leadership and interpersonal communication can help people to come together and resolve conflicts. Also, conflicts are not all bad. They present a tremendous opportunity for people to break the ice, participate in problem-solving and benefit from the belongingness that comes from accomplishing challenges together. However, the respect and tolerance towards each others’ opinions and perspectives are vital. The resulting positivity within the group towards the goal it wants to achieve is lamp enlightening the path to success (Friedemann et al, 2008).

If I want to wrap up my words for my project manager friends, I would say:

  1. Let’s not judge the book by its cover: Team members from different backgrounds have no issue by default in working with each other. However, this is based not on facts but on a lazy bias that will rather dismiss diversity as unproductive as to try and find solutions around that.
  2. Let’s have empathy: Keeping ourselves in someone else’s shoes can help us understand their situation and circumstances. This opens the window for us to relate to people’s thoughts, beliefs and actions as we can see what motivates or drives them. Though we all are set in our own ways, we must stop every once in a while to look towards people around us who may seem different from us but rather than being apprehensive we should try and spend more time with them in order to know them better.
  3. Let’s try to be respectful, always:  If there is a cardinal truth to be learned it is this, even if you find it hard to relate with someone, or find them to be someone you can never be friends with, even then always be respectful and extend the common courtesy. Because this is how decent human beings should interact at all times. 
  4. Teamwork makes the Dreamwork: A group is supposed to minimize each other’s limitations and multiply each other’s strengths. All differences should be set-aside to find common ground. Teamwork can only succeed if all the members are on the same page. 
  5. Honesty is the best policy: All the studies and data available on performance metrics cannot refute the fact that when individuals work honestly with dedication towards their responsibilities, no amount of obstacles can stop them from succeeding.

Diversity in a team is not a random achievement. It works well only by design. It has been said that cultural diversity is poorly defined and analytically neglected. Diversity Atlas, developed by Cultural Infusion, is a new way of unveiling the hidden level of diversity within your team. Book a free demo today!

References


  • Adler, N. J. (2002). International dimensions of organizational behavior, (4th Ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Southwestern
  • Behfar, K., Kern, M., Brett, J. (2006). Managing challenges in multicultural teams. In National culture and groups. Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 233-262.
  • Dreu, C. K. W., Weingart, L.  R. (2003).  Task versus relationship conflict, team performance,  and team member satisfaction: a  meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88(4), 741–749.
  • Friedemann, M., Pagan-Coss, H., & Mayorga, C. (2008). The Workings of a Multicultural Research Team. Journal Of Transcultural Nursing, 19(3), 266-273. DOI: 10.1177/1043659608317094 Jang, S. (2018).
  • The Most Creative Teams Have a Specific Type of Cultural Diversity. Harvard Business Review-Diversity. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2018/07/the-most-creative-teams-have-a-specific-type-of-cultural-diversity
  • Jarvenpaa, S. L., Leidner, D. E. (1999). Communication and trust in global virtual teams. Organizational Science, 10(6), 791-816
  • Jayanthi M. & Rajandaran, K.V.R. (2014). Diversity Challenges: From Multicultural Team Perspective. Sogancilar, N., & Ors, H. (2018).
  • Understanding the challenges of multicultural team management. Pressacademia, 7(3), 259-268. DOI: 10.17261/pressacademia.2018.954
About the Author

Rezza Moieni

Rezza Moieni is the Project director of Cultural Infusion. He has a Master degree in computer science with a focus on Information security and a Bachelors of engineering in Electronic engineering. He has experience in Technology and IT projects and formerly managed national level Audiovisual and IT projects.