Managing Multicultural Teams: How to Avoid and Resolve Conflicts
Managing multicultural teams is becoming more common in today's society. Distributed teams can be spread globally and not just in multinational corporations where they have an office in Singapore and Chicago.
Even smaller tech companies with less than 50 employees will have engineers located in Latin America and Africa and a marketing team with three different time zones.
However, suppose you are a manager only accustomed to managing people from your own country or have new teammates joining from cultures foreign to you. In that case, various challenges and conflicts can arise.
In this article, we will be going over the steps you should take to educate yourself on cross cultural management and create a thriving work environment for your multicultural team.
What is a Multicultural Team?
First, let’s tackle the tricky question. What is culture? Culture is the “Sum total of beliefs, rules, techniques, institutions, and artifacts that characterize human populations.” Culture is learned and not inherent. It can be shared and what defines the borders between groups of people.
A multicultural team is a team made up of people from different countries and cultures. Since each person is unique, they will have different perspectives on how to complete tasks, how feedback should be given or received, and English won’t be the only language spoken.
The increased diversity brings numerous benefits:
- More technological innovation
- Wider perspectives and opinions
- Greater opportunities for skilled workers in developing countries
- Faster learning and skill development
What is cross cultural communication?
Before we even get started on management tips, most multicultural teams’ conflicts occur because of communication breakdowns.
Cross-cultural communication is the way that people adjust their speaking patterns and words to communicate across cultures.
“Effective cross-cultural communication is essential to preventing and resolving conflict, building networks, and creating a satisfactory work environment for everyone involved.” Patty Goodman, Ph.D., the faculty lead for cross-cultural communication in Northeastern’s Masters in Corporate and Organizational Communications.
Critical Skills For Cross Cultural Communication
Some essential skills that Patty points out are:
- Adaptability- Don’t get too stuck in the thinking, “This is just how things are done around here.” If you never question the status quo, there will never be any improvement. If a new team member points out a way to accelerate a process, don’t automatically shoot them down. A/B test their idea with the old strategy and wait for the results.
- Practice Trust- It is pretty common for managers to feel like they have to control everything or nothing will get done. You have to trust your international team with the tasks you give them and communicate your faith in them meeting your expectations. Don’t let preconceived biases get in the way of your productivity.
- Enable Meaningful Conversations- If you limit your conversations to only about work, you will miss out on many of the benefits that come with working with a multicultural team. In your slack channels and company events, make space to talk about topics such as family, pets, or sports.
- Practice Self-awareness- No one is without their biases. As a manager, it is your responsibility to acknowledge any preconceived ideas you may have about another culture. Do an internal audit on your communications like the company mission statement and see if it lacks inclusivity.
What are the challenges of multicultural teams?
When leading multicultural teams, you also have to be aware of the many challenges that may occur. There might even be problems happening in your distributed team that you didn’t correctly diagnose.
A Jobvite Survey from 2018 reported 30% of employees leave a new job after just 90 days of joining. Many times it was because there wasn’t a culture fit. The first step to addressing these issues is recognizing them.
When a new employee unfamiliar with a particular company culture joins a remote team, one of the most overlooked challenges is culture shock.
Crazy to think when culture shock occurs typically when a non-American enters a supermarket in the united states and is overwhelmed by the number of choices. Or when a non-Indian takes a stroll through the crowded streets of Mumbai.
But this can happen to any new remote team member unfamiliar with a startup culture where hours aren’t measured, only deliverables. In some cultures, people believe in collectivism or working together as a team, where others prefer high individuality and work with a “heads-down” approach.
In some countries, the roles played by men and women are expected to be equal, but in some other countries, there is a high degree of gender bias.
Some cultures will do whatever they can to avoid uncertainty and always try to be exact as possible with their deadlines. In comparison, others are more relaxed and do not stress about submitting tasks a day late.
In these examples alone, you can see where the challenges occur in managing a multicultural team, especially in such a fast-paced work environment. This doesn’t mean that you should exclude people without experience in these types of situations in your hiring practices.
However, it certainly should be made clear your organization’s culture and values in the hiring process. This way, both parties set the correct expectations and avoid any future conflicts.
Some other common challenges are:
- Communication gaps- Both parties do not know how to address the issues they are facing. Some cultures are incredibly blunt in their communication, while others try to be supportive or passive-aggressive.
- Different Patterns of Behavior- When two or more people come together to make a decision but have differing attitudes and morals, it is difficult to reach a conclusion. They react in different ways that could be offensive or seen as antagonizing when in reality, they weren’t.
- Different Etiquettes- Although significantly reduced in a remote setting, eastern and western cultures have distinct ways of introducing people, greeting, and interrupting.
- Favoritism and Ethnocentrism- These are the worst challenges that can occur with a manager who doesn't have intercultural competence. They will behave differently towards people with similar cultures to them than with others. They may even think they are superior and talk down or give the worst tasks to team members from different cultures.
How do you manage multicultural diversity in the workplace and remotely?
1. Be as transparent as possible
Transparency is key to avoiding conflicts because it avoids any misconceptions that can occur. This is especially important in a remote setting when all multicultural team interactions will be digital, and information can easily be misinterpreted.
For managers to foster a successful and productive team, they need to establish assets that team members can access at any time. Useful programs for this are Gitlab, Notion, or Air Table.
Sometimes workers might be too anxious to ask any questions. Other times they need an immediate response, and because of time differences, will need to wait. Here are some of the essential items that every company with multicultural teams should have:
- Company handbook - Here is where all the official procedures of your organization should live. This is also where your code of conduct, code of ethics, and disciplinary action should also be located.
- Company values - Here is where you should explicitly state your commitment to inclusivity and fostering a diverse workforce.
- Clear benchmarks and metrics - Meeting company goals can also be a severe point of contention for many distributed teams. If you are unclear about the expectations of a role or team performance standards, different cultures will react differently.
- Orientation and onboarding - Here is where you should have a dedicated team member to show new employees the ropes. You should also set up calls with the new employee and other departments to understand the diversity of your organization.
- Incentives - These should be stated clearly, whether they be company contests, rewards for exceeding goals, and financial incentives. Incentives for each department should be made universal so that everyone feels included.
One way to ensure that everyone on your team feels equal and appreciated is by providing their home office equipment and electronic devices.
2. Anticipate and Learn from Conflict
Conflicts in the workplace, however insignificant they are, can be inevitable. You could do an entire blog post on micro aggressions alone. Nobody is perfect, and as an organization, you have to admit shortcomings rather than sweep issues under the rug or pretend they don’t exist.
So how do you anticipate and learn from conflict?
Preconceptions and Stereotypes:
One of the first things you can do is evaluate if you have any preconceived notions of other cultures or people. You may not even realize it, but one way to do this is to think of a country and write down everything that comes to mind.
Next, highlight all the items that are based on personal experience and could be considered stereotypes. It doesn't matter if they are generally true. The point is to be aware of where your stereotypes come from and learn why they are there.
When there is little communication in a workplace, there is an enormous amount of anxiety anytime there is a performance review or even a team meeting. Especially in high-paced, high-stress environments like in the tech industry, many remote workers will be silent about their feelings.
This results in bottling up emotions, overreacting to minor issues, or even irrational behavior. The key to learning from these conflicts is always to keep your finger on the pulse of your team.
Engage with each member regularly, asking how everything is going in your 1:1s. Always give feedback or talk about company developments in a professional manner. Make sure your team knows they are secure in their roles and supported.
Assumption of Similarities:
Another commonly overlooked issue in managing multicultural teams is assuming everyone thinks the same as you. Never make assumptions.
You should always ask for your team members' opinions before making decisions that will affect how they perform their jobs. Nothing is worse than finding out significant changes without being consulted first.
Even if the changes are inevitable, you should always make them known. The same goes for giving out tasks. You should always ask your team how they feel about working on a specific project or with other team members.
English may be your workplace’s primary language, but you should always take a language-inclusive approach to business operations. This means always keeping a written record of meetings in case there was something someone didn’t understand or missed.
When presenting in a meeting, if you are a native speaker, remember to slow down. People can go off on tangents and ramble, thinking everyone is listening, but they are struggling to understand in reality.
It can be embarrassing to ask someone to constantly repeat themselves in some cultures, so when explaining a complex topic, remember to ask if everything is clear.
There can also be nonverbal misinterpretations for body language or even the way that we dress. Something as simple as a head nod can mean a yes in some cultures while a no in others.
Settle a Multicultural Conflict Immediately:
If a conflict does occur, the worst thing that you can do is postpone the resolution. You have to call a meeting with your HR representative or handle the issue yourself. Listen to both parties' cases and take notes of the details.
Depending on the severity of the conflict and whether they violate your code of conduct and company values will decide if disciplinary action is necessary.
More commonly, it will result from the issues stated above and can be settled through separate 1:1s and then a group meeting where you act as a moderator.
3. Embrace Differences in Opinion
The key to establishing a work environment where everyone feels comfortable is embracing the diversity of your team. People will have different perspectives and opinions, and they shouldn’t be silenced but encouraged.
You should foster safe places to discuss topics that not only relate to work but also daily life. As mentioned before, this will enable meaningful conversations and create a sense of belonging.
You should also enhance individual connection by setting up calls with every team member when a new employee joins. Another helpful approach is to schedule random calls every other week between remote employees.
This way, they continuously are meeting new people and creating new connections.
However, it is important to consider different communication styles. Some team members may not feel comfortable meeting so many new people, and you have to always achieve a consensus before implementing new employee engagement initiatives.
Most importantly, a positive communication style should always be encouraged. This means collectively celebrating team wins, congratulating team members for their contributions, and giving positive feedback.
4. Cultural-Sensitivity Training
If you are managing a large distributed team or making many new international hires, investing in cultural sensitivity, diversity, and cross cultural training is necessary.
Many of the topics discussed in this article will be present, but also there will be different workshops and team-building activities.
The training will help improve employee retention by giving everyone the tools they need to succeed in a multicultural environment.
5. Plan Projects Considering All Internal and External Factors
The last step to managing multicultural teams is planning your projects, considering the internal and external factors that affect your team. These may be internally like your employees’ work schedule because they have children, having to commute to a co-working space or café, or having other responsibilities.
They can also be external, like time zone differences, company priorities, and reaching specific goals. The key is to work asynchronously. This means accounting for the time differences, and different lifestyles of your international team and letting people complete work at their own pace.
Here are the steps you need to take for effective project planning and management.
- Create a project information base-A place where anybody can access the project’s information and progress at any time.
- Document everything-This includes meeting notes, results, key deliverables, and goals.
- Decide on a project language-Most teams will opt for English, but if everyone else speaks a common language that is easier for them to understand, it might be easier to collaborate using that one.
- Encourage Visual Aids-When presenting results or project details, pictures and graphs are much easier to interpret than a spreadsheet or google doc.
Distributed and multicultural teams will eventually become the norm for the majority of organizations. Despite the challenges or conflicts that can occur, practical and empathetic management will allow your organization to move past them.
The most successful companies of the future will be made up of international teams that can work cohesively and understand each other on a human level.
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