Are you looking to make the most of your multicultural team? Read on to learn how to overcome cultural differences below
These days it’s fair to say most businesses have at least one team or department that includes a mixture of people from different locations, cultures, nationalities and backgrounds. This is becoming increasingly common as millennial and Gen Z workers are comprised of around 50% Caucasian people now, against the 70% plus proportion for baby boomer workers and their generation.
This positive change in diversity is only set to continue, as businesses and employees understand the benefits of a diverse workplace in today’s globalized world. New talent and job candidates actively consider diversity high on their priorities and 67% place it high on their list of factors when considering a new employment opportunity. Boost workplace diversity and you benefit from a range of different skill sets, insights and perspectives, as well as attracting the best candidates for employment as you grow.
You might be forgiven for thinking that diverse teams are something reserved for big multi-national corporates. However, the benefits of multi-cultural teams apply just as well to smaller and medium sized enterprises. Aside from having teams with a much wider range of skills and perspectives, increased diversity within teams can help create better working environments, which in turn will lead to greater staff morale and lower staff turnover. Furthermore, having a more engaged, diverse pool of talent working for you helps create an environment that fosters and encourages greater productivity and innovation. If you think about it, this just makes sense – being exposed to colleagues with different backgrounds and perspectives will help challenge your own ideas and allow you to form new approaches and ways of thinking – something I’m sure you’ll agree is a great addition to any business.
It’s not all positive…
Notwithstanding all of the benefits outlined above, having a multicultural team will inevitably present its own unique set of challenges. Native language and cultural custom differences between teammates can make for a really challenging management situation, despite the obvious diversity benefits.
In order to successfully manage a team with cultural differences, here are some of our tips:
Decide on a common language
Where your team encompasses people with a range of native languages, ideally there will be a language that your team agrees you can all speak together, or that at least you can use to communicate with all your team members. Once you’ve established a core language, you can always help and encourage each member of the team to learn the basics of other team members’ native languages. Apps like Duolingo are great for this kind of task and can really encourage team members to participate in the learning experience. However, having one core language is definitely a good idea from a purely practical perspective.
Be sensitive to the cultural customs of each team member
It’s important to ensure you factor in the various cultural customs of all your different team members when allocating work tasks and responsibilities. Not only will facilitating working around important holidays for example make your team members feel valued as individuals, it’ll also help manage your team’s resources to avoid any bottlenecks or shortfalls are avoided. This is particularly relevant when dealing with remote team management – not being in the same room as your team members every day can mean you don’t pick up on upcoming holidays or events. This is why it’s important to invest the time in learning about your team members and their usual cultural holidays and traditions etc.
Don’t treat everyone the same
It can be tempting to think that treating everyone the same is the right thing to do, especially when you’re dealing with such a range of cultural backgrounds and there’s no obvious model for everyone to follow. However, doing so can be a big mistake.
The first thing to do is to recognise that everyone is different – there are a whole range of different cultures and backgrounds within your team and it would be a mistake not to acknowledge that. Only once you recognise the level of diversity within your team can you start to pull together a plan for properly managing your team.
Stay away from stereotypes
This sounds like an obvious one, and it is, but it’s so important that it’s worth re-iterating. Don’t allow yourself or other team members to revert to lazy stereotypes – not only does this fail to give cultural differences the respect they deserve, it can be really damaging to the relationships among team members. What might be an innocent joke to one person could be really quite insulting to another. Something as important as this should be covered off with new team members at a very early stage, ideally as part of their induction process.
Normalise non-verbal communication
It’s important to normalise using all kinds of non-verbal communication, particularly when dealing with team members with a range of different native languages. Body language, facial expressions, diagrams, pictures and hand signals can all be utilised to some extent for a team working together. However, be sure to discuss with your team members as appropriate – what’s perfectly normal in one culture could be considered highly offensive in another!
Ensure training can be understood by all
To make sure nobody feels left out or excluded, you should ensure all of your training materials can be easily understood by all team members. Whilst you might have decided to adopt a common language for the team, when it comes to more complex training materials non-native speakers may prefer to read these in their native language. If you’re considering this, be sure to speak to a professional translation agency – whether it’s simply translating written materials or having a French voice over or Cantonese subtitles added to a training video for example, it’s important to engage experts to make sure nothing is missed or overlooked.
Allow plenty of preparation time
When foreign languages are being spoken, or people aren’t speaking in their native language, it’s inevitable that discussions and working between team members will take long – at least initially. For this reason, it’s so important to ensure that you include sufficient time when allocating tasks for discussions to be had so that nothing is misinterpreted or lost in translation. Having a rule about not interrupting each other, as well as reminding everyone to have lots of patience, will give everybody more time to communicate and get their points across.
Dedicate training to overcoming cultural challenges
It’s a great idea to involve your team in the planning and processes for overcoming cultural barriers in ways that are respectful and productive. People are generally keen to know more about their colleagues and their different cultures and backgrounds so use that to your advantage. Training on the topic is one great way to achieve this – any such training should actively show your team how to:
- Boost their social skills
- Embrace different communication styles and skills
- Use relevant applications to help with language learning (e.g. Duolingo)
- Appreciate the cultural backgrounds of those you work with
- Be respectful of other cultures, avoiding any common pitfalls
- Boost language learning skills and cultural awareness
Assess and re-assess every month
Even if you follow all of the steps above, that’s only going to take you so far. To make sure you’re staying on top of the issue and sticking to your plan, you need to set aside time each month to evaluate how things are going and identify areas that need worked on. This would typically include setting aside time to speak to team members each month to ensure there aren’t any unforeseen issues arising. Wider team meetings on a regular basis would also be a good idea to gauge the overall mood of the team and identify any potential problems.
“Our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Without question, a multicultural team is a great asset to any business. This is particularly the case if you can carefully nurture the team’s cultural differences and encourage your team members to be inquisitive yet respectful of others. If you’re able to do that, you’ll put yourself in a much better position than most of your competitors and have a team that can approach problems from a whole range of perspectives. Not only that, but you’re also more likely to create a team with a positive working environment, high staff morale and low levels of staff turnover – all huge benefits for any business.
So if you’re considering growing your team and looking at candidates from wider cultural backgrounds, don’t be intimidated or put off by the potential challenges. Using our tips outlined above, and your own ideas and innovations, you can successfully overcome cultural differences within your team, helping to drive your business forward to greater success.