The first time I worked in a multicultural team I was an university student travelling in Belgium for an international project. That project gave me the opportunity to observe directly how aspect such as, for instance, time perception, relationship towards authority or collaboration between men and women are differently converted between cultures. And I also found out how cultures are internally different and contaminated by emerging counter-cultures, in a fluid and constant evolution.
Today the Internet and the low-cost flights have shortened geographical distances, and working in multicultural teams is pretty common.
But it is not yet so common the so-called “intercultural competence”, that is the ability to understand and correctly handle the different cultural identities involved in an interaction.
Undoubtedly, the diversity within a team creates value.
- It brings the team members closer to their diverse customer base
- It expands their point of views
- It develops their problem solving, creativity and innovation skills.
But what are the threats?
- First of all, communication. Misunderstanding words or nonverbal communication – when different cultures give different meanings to them – can lead to misperceptions or conflicts.
- Furthermore, there could be some problems relating to the team’s power structure. For example, members of the dominant culture within a team could exclude members from different cultures, or underestimate their contribution. This would reduce the advantages generated by the team diversity. Or, at worst, this would disrupt the team’s cohesion and therefore undermine the team’s goal.
So, what you, as a leader, can do in order to effectively manage a multicultural team?
- Firstly, you should raise awareness among team members of the challenge, not just the beauty, of the diversity. It would be a long journey, and there are no shortcuts. Learning to understand different perspectives with curiosity and without judgement will make the journey more enjoyable.
- Furthermore, clearly define the team’s roles and rules, fostering the participation of everyone. In a multicultural team, people can associate different expectations with the same role, and this could lead to misunderstandings.
- In order to convert the diversity into a resource for your team, it is also fundamental creating a psychologically safe environment where every team member feels free to express his/her diversity and give his/her contribution.
- Last but not least, the most important task for the leader: develop a hybrid team culture that includes every diversity and unifies the team. A strong sense of belonging will help team members to overcome their differences in order to focus on the common goal.
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences” (Audre Lorde)