How to manage my multicultural team?

Globalization is a phenomenon that has impacted everyone's life at some level. In the workplaces, it means, having people from different cultures working together. Managers are also more inclined to relocate abroad for few years. There are few things that you may expect and others that take you by surprise. It has usually always something to do with communication.

The first thing you want to avoid when working in multicultural teams is to offend people. Here are some facts about cultural differences:

Words are not everything.

We know that communication is not only made through words. Our behavior and body language impact the way the message is received. In some countries, talking to someone without looking at him in the eyes is taken as a liar or  a shifty behavior. In other countries, the same behavior is interpreted as a respectful one. Such behavioral rules are taught to children with sentences such as: "Look at me in the eye when I talk to you!"

1. Explicit vs. implicit communication.

In some cultures you do what you say or write and in others you can interpret what is said or written. The big difference can be explained the the schedule of a meeting:
An explicit communicator will say "let's meet at 3 pm" (he means it) and an implicit communicator will understand: "Let's meet some times after 3 pm".
The explicit communicator will be at the meeting at 3 pm if not a bit earlier while the implicit communicator will eventually arrive 10 to 15 minutes late, if not later.

In this situation the explicit communicator will probably be upset at the implicit one who may not understand what's wrong.

2. Us vs. Me

Some cultures are centered around the group other around the individual. The consequences of such differences is that a "us" person will generally position the group before him while the "me" person will take decision based on his needs. In the workplace, this can impact the relationship between employees. One could be seen as egoistic or too intrusive with people life.

3. Time perception:

Some cultures value time as a precious object that should not be wasted but organized while other cultures take time as an elastic object which use can vary. Imagine the relationship between a "time oriented" person and an "elastic time" person. The report has to be done as soon as possible for the "time oriented" person but the "elastic time" person estimate he has the time to do it. Seems familiar to you?

4. Hierarchy

The hierarchy can be either flat or with levels.  The more levels there are, the bigger is the distance between people at the bottom and at the top of the organization. A big distance implies  that roles are defined and fixed while a small distance amounts to a capacity to exchange roles.


There are a lot of things to say about cultural differences but they should not stop us from working together. We have the responsibility to acknowledge them and to adapt to them when possible.

The bigger risks when working in multicultural teams are: 

1. Stereotypes:

This is one of the most important point I want to make. Do not make assumptions on people's behavior based on the idea you have about their culture. First, your stereotype may be totally wrong and second being french do not make me a lazy person who will strike when I am not happy. I encourage you to read my post "Do not make assumptions, ask questions" to know what I exactly mean.

2. Language level difference

You may all speak the same language but some of your peer may not be native speakers. They can also be learning the language used in the organizations and may need more time to express their ideas clearly. Keep in mind that people can avoid asking for clarifications. Writing down the main points of a discussion can keep your peers engaged. Furthermore, having problems to express yourself in another language does not mean you are stupid. You probably agree with me right now but in practice we have a tendency to judge people intelligence based on their language level.

3. Exclusion

Another tendency we may have is to exclude people who differ to much from our culture. It is always easy to accuse Mr. New to not make efforts to integrate himself to the team but it is something else to take the responsibility to include him.

What can you do then? 

You can pay attention to your own stereotypes. Why don't you write a stereotype journal in which you will explain what you expect from a person based on your assumptions. This will be an eye opener exercise as it will make you realized how much you assume and how much you really know.

Be patient with your employees who are learning your language. Give them time to express their idea and why not offer them an advance course to help them improve their communication skills.

Always include your employee and be curious about his culture. How does he see the situation A? What would he do in his country? What differences chocked him when he first arrived? Why don't you try a "cultural dinner" where you will all bring a specialty from your own country /  region / city?

Any other ideas? Share them with us with a comment:

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