multicultural team

How to Manage Emotions and Other Issues in a Multicultural Team

Global mobility specialists find their tasks easier if the assignee he has hired is working as part of one monocultural team. For example, he brings in an Asian or European programmer to work in a retail store trying to find its digital footprint somewhere in mid-west America.

While the workforce in that company will be oriented and briefed in giving their new foreign colleague his cultural space and respecting it, the burden of adjustment becomes easier. Regardless of how open that company is, the truth is, the weight of the transition depends on the assignee. It is one foreigner learning to adapt to the cultural norms and practices in America; his American colleagues will respect his values but the overall zeitgeist will not change in his behalf.

For example, if that programmer were a Middle Eastern Muslim, his American colleagues who munch on hamburger would be wise enough to respect his preferences for halal food. The global mobility specialist handling his case might even negotiate that he has several breaks in a day so he can practice his prayer time in private. However, despite this latitude, the predominantly American non-Muslim workforce is not expected to join in his prayer sessions; and neither is the office cafeteria required to stop serving pork loin.

The game changes, though, if the global mobility specialist is asked to put together a multicultural team. A group made of a dozen people working in an American company might consist of six American citizens, two Indians, one Russian, and one Middle Eastern. In a sense, while the company core values and practices themselves might not change, running the dynamics of this group would require a huge amount of sensitivity, intercultural awareness, and set rules to defuse any tension that might come in.

They might keep their confusion and resentment to themselves in order to keep the peace, but any unacknowledged issue can escalate into hostility or disagreements that can upset the work process. The first point of tension can be triggered by one national’s supposedly innocent comment about how food is being prepared in another national’s country. If one national’s country was supposedly influential in the decline of another, both assignees from those two nations would be viewing each other with suspicion from day one.

Here is how global mobility specialists can manage those differences and make their multicultural team a functional powerhouse group:

First, as InterNations puts it, get to know the cultural nuances and traditions of each member of the team. Your team will respect you more — and follow you -= if you show that you understand and appreciate their culture. That knowledge will also help you become more fair and objective in settling disputes later on, and no one will be able to accuse you of partiality.

You can also use your knowledge to guide how your individual team members behave in that group. For example, you can, on the spot, arrest or immediately stop a joke that you know would be offensive to one assignee. You can also learn how to manage expectations and make things more productive. For example, the Indian assignee in your group keeps saying yes to the favors his team members ask from him. However, because of his own workload, he has a hard time delivering on his promise. Once you realize that culturally it is difficult for an Indian to say “no”, then you can address the issue in private. Talk to him one-and-one and tell him it is ok to turn down favors if it means that the job will be compromised; no one will think less of him, and nor will his job be put on the line.

Second, build trust among the group members. Invest in the time and effort that will create solid relationships among your assignees. These can involve formal training workshops on teamwork that emphasize differences, to having a cozy drink after office-hours. You might even want to host a dinner at your own home. If the city of employment is as friendly and as culturally open as Northern California, you might want to take them on a tour of the most popular destinations. Relaxation outside of the office might just make each assignee open up to you — then later on, to each other.

Third, while respecting the cultural differences, emphasize that you are a global community. The organization does have set rules and standards that everyone, regardless of his age, ethnicity, and country of origin, will have to conform to. That’s a given once they signed up for the job. Performance metrics, being a team player, pursuing standards of excellence, the company’s code of conduct — these will ultimately determine the guidelines by which the team is held accountable, assessed for their performance, and work together as a group.

Be flexible when it comes to the local culture but create a global framework and set of principles that will keep everyone living according to the same high standard. That’s the key in managing the dynamics of an intercultural team.