A multi-cultural team can bring significant advantages to business delivery through its ability to potentially tap into a broader range of stakeholders. Or perhaps gain a wider range of experiences, and generate a greater choice in options. As Claire Halverson and S. Aqeel Tirmizi state in their book Effective Multicultural Teams: Theory and Practice, these types of teams can form an essential strategic component for firms in today’s more globalised business operations. However, multicultural teams bring their challenges in the workplace, so we cover some of these issues today.
Although not a team structure per se, a multi-cultural composition in a team does add an extra dimension and so is being covered in our series of effective teams in the workplace, again, your feedback and comments are always welcome.
What is a Multi-Cultural Team?
Multi-cultural teams may have members who reflect differences such as age, social background, disability, sex, ethnic origin and part-timers. They may also have members from different cultural backgrounds requiring respect for unfamiliar customs and practices. This is a separate issue from the range of skills and experience they bring to the team, although their different life experiences may have influenced them.
Common Problems Found to Multi-Cultural Team Success
Below we discuss five of the most common challenges that can hinder multicultural teams from becoming effective.
The majority of the team comes from one particular background; the person can feel isolated and not valued and becomes unwilling to contribute fully. Examples of common problems include groups where most have been around for a long time, and a young graduate joins. Or perhaps someone from a different ethnic background does not feel welcome. Or where a woman joins an all-male team and tries to be more like a man to gain acceptance.
Troubleshooting tip: the objective is to strive for inclusion rather than allow exclusion to take root. The issues are likely to be sensitive or part of ingrained prejudices and are unlikely to be resolved through simple processes. You can start by getting team members to attend the Diversity and Inclusion Workshop to make sure there is clarity around individual responsibility and provide helpful talking points later.
A mature team that has experienced little membership change will undoubtedly have created its norms and mini culture. Their behaviour may be offensive to new members who may lack the confidence to challenge or say they feel offended. Sometimes such new members become ostracised and isolated, and this kind of behaviour may well be a form of harassment and bullying. New team leaders and managers are not exempt from this syndrome and can find it extremely difficult to exert legitimate authority.
Troubleshooting tip: team leaders should initially challenge bad behaviour, keeping the discussion informal and striving for inclusion and openness.
Where several kinds of diversity appear in one team, beware the tendency for cliques to develop. Examples might be:
- two or three members of one ethnic minority forming an in group and even speaking their first language as a way of excluding others;
- older people adopting a we’ve been through all that before and it didn’t work the first time approach to new ideas; or
- younger people assuming all older people are unable to adapt to new ways of working.
Troubleshooting tip: at regular team meetings, agree and maintain ground rules for how the team works together. The language at work is English, so keep other languages for lunch breaks and outside work activities. Strive for inclusion, making sure older people’s experiences are valued but put in perspective and that younger people learn from the relevant past experiences. It may be appropriate to get different people to work together and keep changing around.
Where the team includes part-timers, permanent full-timers and contractors, resentments can build up. Contractors may be earning more money for doing the same work as their colleagues. Part-timers may (unwittingly) can feel like second class citizens.
Troubleshooting tip: Small details like the timing of meetings can cause friction. If there are regular team meetings, make sure they are not arranged on days when job-sharers are not working or at times when part-timers are not on the roster. Communication is essential to team success where people work different hours, and it is worth the extra effort to check that individuals are receiving information without delay.
Different Cultures and Religions
If several different cultures and religions are in the team, you will need great sensitivity to avoid unwitting discrimination. There may be strict requirements for religious observation, e.g. orthodox Jews. There may be particular ways of dressing or taboo behaviours such as shaking hands. The possibilities are enormous, and the key to success is to observe mutual respect and value other people’s differences.
Troubleshooting tip: work towards creating a team environment where people feel comfortable explaining aspects of their culture that differ from the mainstream. Cultural diversity is an endlessly fascinating area that should enrich everybody’s experiences rather than cause problems. Do not be afraid to ask individuals what they prefer to be called or describe aspects of their culture that affect how they work. People usually like it when you ask them, as they see it as a sign of respect.
Nine Steps For Creating Successful Multi-Cultural Teams
The five challenges identified above can be significant barriers to multicultural teams being effective in the workplace. So to help overcome these, we have set out below are nine proactive steps to avoiding or at least minimising their effects. These steps should, in particular, assist in what Morgan Henrie found in his work Multi-National Project Team Communications: International Cultural Influences, where multi-cultural teams tended to have lower power gradients and, in turn, better communication and delivery.
- Think beyond the usual categories of ethnic minorities, sex and disability. Other factors include age, social background, sexual orientation, parents, part-timers are all significant factors affecting people’s behaviour;
- Value everybody’s contribution, mainly if they come from a different background to your own;
- Respect other people’s differences and remember that you are different to them as much as they are different.
- Challenge inappropriate language at the outset;
- Beware of the response “it was only a joke” – Employment Tribunals award large sums for unwanted racial and sexual banter;
- Take complaints of bullying and harassment seriously and treat individuals sympathetically;
- Set clear objectives for the team and ensure each member has a role;
- Where appropriate, keep people moving through roles to develop their skills and avoid cliques, and;
- Celebrate the success of team diversity.
In addition to our article today looking at the challenges multicultural teams can have in the workplace, we have several other articles looking at how we can make work teams more effective. If you are interested in the communication side, we have a piece that looks into this. Conflict is a natural part of work and teams, and we have an article that looks at how we can better manage this. Learning and development are critical at an individual and team level; we have another piece covering some of these vital issues. For those needing some help for those team meetings or workshops, we can help with icebreakers and energies. And if leadership teams are where you would like some more reading, check out our article here for guidance.