Managing a multicultural team

N°269b – Synopsis (8p.) – Cohesion
Managing a multicultural team
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Many managers nowadays collaborate with multicultural teams. Yet, working with people from different cultures is never easy. How can you take advantage of diversity and avoid its dangers?

Are we better at managing cultural diversity now it is more widespread? It seems very doubtful. We just have to drop an ear by the coffee machine or in the project coordination meetings to realize it. We rapidly perceive that difficulties remain, even though it has become commonplace to call a colleague in Bangalore, or to have a Spanish woman and a German man in our team. The list of cultural discrepancies is long: comprehension difficulties linked to the language barrier or to communication preferences, attitudes that hurt some while are seemingly natural for others, heterogeneous work practices that make coordination more complicated, varied conceptions of time keeping or quality…  The list of cultural gaps is extensive.

Often benign, these differences sometimes also result in demeaning judgments or stronger dissents: “Ah, those French people! When will they learn to arrive on time?”; “Those Brits! Incapable of providing a straight answer. They always have to communicate through innuendos!” If we are not careful, the frustration generated by those differences can escalate into open conflict and damage the collaboration.

Sometimes, cultural gaps can have a more insidious effect, by distorting perception. For example, her colleagues accused a teleconsultant of causing a drop in the team performance because of the excessive length of her conversations. It turned out that this person, originally from South America, was rapidly solving the customers’ issues. However, she was spending more time chatting with them?a sign of good manners in her culture. Her apparent lack of effectiveness was in fact only her keenness to serve the customers well, with a culturally marked approach.

What to do then, when we have to manage a multicultural team and are facing often unconscious differences, which can seriously jeopardize the group’s harmony and its performance?

In this synopsis:
- Creating a team spirit in a multicultural context
- Properly managing multicultural projects
- Four sources of tension in multicultural teams

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