9 Ways to Manage a Multicultural Team

Your native language and your cultural customs are among the main aspects that make you part of a particular culture. Due to cultural differences, there might be some obstacles to overcome when working in a multicultural team. A multicultural team is a team whose members originate from various countries and cultures. Naturally, these people speak different languages as well. 

To be a successful team leader in an environment like this one, do your best to make all your colleagues feel comfortable. This article will help you manage a multicultural team, regardless of whether you work in the same office or remotely.

How to Manage a Multicultural Team

1. Overcome Language and Cultural Barriers

When working in a multicultural team, one of the most common challenges is handling language barriers between employees. If each team member speaks a different language, you’ll want to find a common language you can all use so every member can communicate with ease. 

Once you’ve selected your preferred language of choice, break down any remaining language obstacles. Here are four useful tips:

  1. Encourage your employees to learn at least a few key phrases in other languages to make your workplace more inclusive.
    Encourage your employees to learn at least a few key phrases in other languages to make your workplace more inclusive.

    Encourage your team to learn a few key sentences (or phrases) in each language. 

  2. Normalize that asking someone to repeat themselves is fine. Your team members shouldn’t feel embarrassed doing so, especially when working remotely. If employees have heavy accents, others might have to ask to hear the same sentence twice, and both parties should feel comfortable with this. 
  3. Choose the language that the majority feels comfortable with. This should be the language used in all meetings and formal events.
  4. If some of your coworkers aren’t fluent in a specific language, avoid using that language in the workplace.

You might run into additional challenges due to cultural differences. Here’s how to deal with them:

  • Organize informal gatherings for your team members. This is an ideal way to learn more about other cultures. For example, you can talk about what makes a certain culture unique: their food, holidays, customs, and more. 
  • Delegate work assignments according to the cultural customs of your team members. Keep in mind that every culture has its own work schedule, vacation rules, and list of holidays. This is truly important if you’re managing your multicultural team remotely.

2. Consider Different Cultural Communication Styles

Every culture nurtures its own communication style, like speaking patterns and nonverbal communication. Nonverbal communication includes everything beyond words — gestures, facial expressions, and body language. It’s crucial to understand diverse communication styles between cultures and speak to your colleagues according to these rules. 

For instance, nonverbal hand signals have diverse meanings in different cultures. In his book Beyond Culture, an anthropologist Edward T. Hall coined the phrases “high-context”, “low-context” and “multi-active” cultures:

Different cultures have distinct ways of communicating, so keep them in mind when speaking with various team members.
Different cultures have distinct ways of communicating, so keep them in mind when speaking with various team members.

High-context cultures use nonverbal cues often.

Communication is usually indirect. While having a dialogue, people speak one-at-a-time. When conflicts occur, people tend to solve issues immediately so they can continue working. Some “high-context” countries that communicate nonverbally are Japan, Greece, and numerous Arab nations. 

Low-context cultures rely on words themselves.

Communication is direct, primarily verbal, and open. When conflicts arise, people don’t necessarily have to work them out straight away to continue working. Some “low-context” countries are the United States, Germany, and Scandinavian countries.

Multi-active cultures fall between these two categories.

Communication tends to be a combination of nonverbal and verbal cues, and conflicts can be resolved on the spot or after the fact. Some “multi-active” countries are Spain, Italy, and Latin America.

Each culture has a unique understanding of nonverbal communication. Keep in mind that you might have to take a different approach when talking to your German colleague as opposed to your team member from Peru.

3. Plan Projects Around Different Time Zones

This tip applies to you only if you’re managing the virtual multicultural team. Supervising a virtual team can be difficult because you’re not at the same place or time zone as your colleagues.

Make sure employees across the world can participate in meetings and work on projects no matter where they're located.
Make sure employees across the world can participate in meetings and work on projects no matter where they’re located.

Let’s say that you live and work in Phoenix, AZ, and your team members are all located in London, UK. By the time your workday starts at 9am, your colleagues would have only an hour left before they head home around 5pm. 

You need to organize your work properly and make plans according to these different time zones. Also, keep this in mind when you’re setting deadlines for your team members.

To avoid any time-related confusion, try using time management apps. They will help you track project progress and examine productivity levels by week so you can see the current activity level of your employees regardless of time zone.

4. Allow Prep Time Whenever Your Team Needs It

Most of us can smoothly and eloquently express our thoughts when speaking our native language, but, this isn’t always the case when speaking in foreign languages.

If employees aren't familiar with the language you have chosen to use to communicate, give the ample time to prep for meetings.
If employees aren’t familiar with the language you have chosen to use to communicate, give the ample time to prep for meetings.

Some team members might feel uneasy in a meeting where the established speaking is not native to them. They may feel restrained in these situations, causing a communication barrier.

Remember to give your team — especially those speaking a different language than what they were raised on — enough time to prepare themselves when speaking a foreign language. If they need to gather their thoughts or take time to make a point, don’t interrupt or talk over them. Be patient and give them the time and space they need to communicate effectively. This not only improves communication, but it helps your team members become more confident speaking foreign languages as well.

5. Be Open to All Cultures and Their Differences

The best way to show your colleagues that you respect and appreciate them is by being open to the traditions and values of all cultures. This means avoiding promoting or embracing only one culture in the workplace. For instance, during the holiday season, it’s important to vary your decorations so all cultures are included. This way, your multicultural team will know you respect and embrace whatever they celebrate during the holidays.

Diversity brings new ideas to the table. Be open to understanding the cultural differences between your employees and celebrate them in a respectful way.
Diversity brings new ideas to the table. Be open to understanding the cultural differences between your employees and celebrate them in a respectful way.

Additionally, you can make an effort to learn more about a particular culture and its characteristics. For example, start by exploring the cuisine or by watching popular movies from other countries. 

6. Organize a Cross-Cultural Training

To improve workplace happiness and morale, organize cross-cultural training. The purpose of this training is to overcome cultural challenges at the office. That way, people will get to know each other and educate themselves about various cultural beliefs.

This training should highlight:

  • How to minimize the culture barriers
  • How to avoid stereotypes and prejudices
  • How to appreciate your own and the skills of other cultures
  • How to improve your social skills
  • How to become a better listener
  • How to aim your attention on common principles rather than differences

7. Avoid Stereotypes

“There’s a fine line between being aware of culture differences and stereotyping. When you paint groups of people with a broad brush, such as thinking that all people from a certain region behave a certain way, you’ve likely crossed it.” — David Livermore, founder of the Cultural Intelligence Center

There's a difference between being mindful of cultural differences and relying on stereotypes to make people management decisions.
There’s a difference between being mindful of cultural differences and relying on stereotypes to make people management decisions.

When working in a multicultural team, be extra careful with the language you use. There’s a balance between being mindful of cultural differences and relying on stereotypes to make assumptions about your employees’ behaviors.. The fact that your colleague is from Japan or France does not dictate every decision your employees make, and leaning on this logic will likely offend them. Everyone, regardless of their cultural upbringing, is an autonomous individual, so treat your coworkers in such manner. 

To avoid stereotypes, take time to become acquainted with every team member. Feel free to encourage your colleagues to do so as well. 

You need to remind yourself frequently that:

  • Each team member has a unique way of working and communicating with others
  • Everyone is an individual and has specific preferences
  • Culture shapes behavior but does not dictate it

8. Practice Empathy

A good leader will always find time to check in with their team members. This is an effective way to build trust with employees and promote mutual respect. 

Good leaders are empathetic to employees' thoughts and feelings on the job.
Good leaders are empathetic to employees’ thoughts and feelings on the job.

While talking with your colleagues, practice empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of someone else. Empathy takes practice, and it’s important to continually grow your listening skills when in a leadership role. Making an attempt to understand what your coworker is experiencing helps your relationship with them thrive.  

Practicing empathy has additional benefits, too:

  • It provides support for multicultural employees so they’ll continue providing quality work
  • It helps them solve issues standing in their way to reach desired goals   
  • It helps resolve conflicts quickly and effectively.

9. Deliver Honest Feedback

Providing your team with honest and constructive feedback is a significant part of your leadership and management duties. Your colleagues deserve to know the truth about the quality of their work, be it positive or negative. 

Honest feedback for a multicultural team is essential.
Honest feedback for a multicultural team is essential.

As a leader of a multicultural team, you have to be cautious about evaluating someone’s work. Each culture, and even each country, has a unique way of giving feedback, especially when it’s constructive and can be easily viewed as negative.

Erin Meyer, an author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, established guidelines for giving constructive feedback by country.  

It’s important to note that the descriptions below are merely generalizations and do not reflect how each employee behaves at an individual level. With this in mind, here’s what she found out about the following countries:

🇺🇸 USA

American employees are known for giving explicit positive feedback, using words like “fabulous” and “awesome.” When it comes to negative feedback, they prefer to deliver it in writing.

🇬🇧 England

British employees tend to be less direct than Americans, both when complimenting or criticizing. They use adverbs like “maybe” and “possibly” to soothe criticism.

🇩🇪 Germany

German employees have a tendency to give negative feedback directly, and are less likely to provide positive feedback in general.

🇫🇷 France

French employees are more likely to give negative or constructive verbal feedback in the workplace. When it comes to positive feedback, their principle is: “No news is good news.”

🇧🇷 Brazil

Brazilian employees are known for their indirect and implicit language. This applies both for positive and negative feedback.

🇦🇷 Argentina

Argentinian employees are considered to be the most direct in giving feedback among all Latin American countries. According to Meyer, neighboring countries have a tendency to perceive this as arrogant behavior and it can cause conflict.

🇳🇬 Nigeria

Nigerian employees are known for having a very direct way of providing feedback, which is very unusual for other African countries.

🇬🇭 Ghana

Like other African countries (except Nigeria), Ghanaian employees tend to avoid direct confrontation. Their way of providing constructive feedback to someone is by telling a mutual friend.

🇨🇳 China

Chinese employees tend to modify their feedback according to where an employee sits within the hierarchy of the company. For example, a businessperson would give softer feedback to a colleague but will strongly criticize a subordinate.

🇯🇵 Japan

Japanese employees are famous for giving the most indirect feedback. They usually skip giving negative feedback at all so the recipient must find the implicit meaning.

🇲🇽 Mexico

Mexican employees are less direct than Americans. When they’re criticizing, they like to make the criticism more comfortable, by adding: “That’s an interesting point, but another interesting point might be…”

🇦🇺 Australia

Australian employees are considered to be the most direct of all Anglo-Saxon countries, providing blunt feedback, both positive and negative. This can sometimes cause conflict with Americans, who sometimes find this style arrogant.

Final Tips

Managing a team comprised of members from different cultural backgrounds can be challenging. Do your best to make your colleagues feel comfortable in the workplace. Since adopting the necessary set of skills takes a lot of work, let this article be your guide whenever you’re struggling. We hope these tips will help you manage your multicultural team with ease.

Marija Kojic is a productivity expert specialized in time management techniques. She works at Clockify, where she enjoys helping people discover meaningful and effective ways to work smarter.