Over the last two decades, we have witnessed a nearly unprecedented shift in how companies operate in pretty much every respect. Among other things, the new technologies have made it more possible and viable for companies to employ teams that are far more heterogeneous than anything that was possible in the past.
In short, the multicultural team has become a norm and managers are having to learn how to manage such teams. This is nothing to hold against them. It is simply a different reality, with new challenges and ways to overcome these challenges.
The Assertiveness Challenge
Perhaps the most impactful cultural difference in the business arena, and subsequently the largest challenge in managing multicultural teams, is how different cultures see assertiveness and displays of assertiveness on the behalf of the manager.
For example, in the United States and the majority of “Western” countries, assertiveness is expected from a manager and the language used in such situations can feel almost aggressive to cultures that are not used to it. These are mostly Asian cultures where requests are formulated more indirectly and where western-style assertiveness is often seen as too direct.
If you manage a multicultural team, make sure to understand these different views of assertiveness and be careful when exerting assertiveness.
The Tone Challenge
Often times, in situations where you manage homogenous teams, you start (consciously or not) adopting different tones depending on the situation and the person you are talking to. Even in team communication, sarcasm, irony and other “complex” types of tone become a norm. Inside jokes, complaining and similar concepts are also present and they pose no problem.
With a multicultural team, this can become a problem, and very easily so. Humor and nuanced overtones get lost in translation before you can say “a massive lawsuit” and this can lead to all kinds of conflicts and uncomfortable situations.
Because of this, when managing a multicultural team, stick to the most neutral possible tone and use language that cannot be interpreted in more than one way.
The Decision-Making Challenge
One would think that at least decision-making is somewhat universal and that managers make their decisions in at least a similar way, regardless of the longitude or latitude. In reality, this is simply not the case.
For instance, in some cultures, managers are expected to be able to make decisions quickly and often without spending due diligence on all the ins and outs that go into making a decision. For instance, in the United States, this is seen as the epitome of strong leadership. In other cultures, managers are expected to gain far more insight before making a decision, often consulting team members and reaching some kind of a consensus.
It should also be pointed out that in some cultures, the decisions made by higher-ups are never disputed, even if they are clearly wrong; while in others, people will be more than ready to jump in and point out that a wrong decision was made.
As a multicultural team manager, you need to make sure everyone understands your decision-making process and you might also want to talk to individual team members to find out what they think about it and whether they are comfortable with it.
The Language Challenge
A multicultural team will operate in a language that was designed as the primary one. Some team members will be native speakers while others may not be. It might be their second or third language and even when their command of the official language is enviable, it will still not be their mother tongue and it may lead to problems.
For example, if such team members notice that some other team members are commenting on their language skills or showing any kind of bias due to the language barrier, they might feel less free to voice their opinions or provide any insights. They might feel discouraged or even discriminated in some way.
As a manager, you will want to do everything in your power to avoid this from happening. Everyone needs to be valued the same, regardless of their command of this “primary” language that you decided on. Of course, people should not have to decipher what is being said, but there also has to be understanding and tolerance. The good thing is that people always find a way to get the message across.
The “Technical” Challenge
In addition to the more culture-based and almost philosophical challenges, the manager of a multicultural team also needs to deal with the more mundane, technical issues. For instance, team members may be used to different kinds of software and work environment.
Something that a western team member may take for granted, like Google’s search engine may be completely unfamiliar to a team member from China, for example.
Then, there is also the matter of email etiquette which is different in different parts of the world. We must also not forget about time zones and the fact that people work at different times.
Soon enough, this can grow into this smorgasbord of management challenges that a manager needs to overcome in order for everything to run smoothly. This is where a good piece of project management software can go a long way and before you commit to any one, you will want to do some project management software comparison.
Managing a multicultural team can be challenging, there is no doubt about that. However, with a bit of care and common sense and with a lot of tact and preparation, you will soon discover that managing such a team can also be a fantastic experience.
About the Author
Nate Vickery is a business consultant mostly interested in latest technology trends applicable to SMB and startup management and marketing. Nate is also the editor at a business oriented blog BizzmarkBlog.com