By Professor Arun Singh
Decoding culture is the key to successful teamwork in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities
One of the many unique advantages of living and working in the UAE is the incredible diversity of its population. With more than 200 nationalities represented, the Emirates brings together people and ideas from cultures all around the world. This is particularly the case in Dubai, where 83 percent of the population are foreign-born, making it one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities.
From a human capital perspective, it’s an incredible advantage. This level of unparalleled diversity means Dubai – and the UAE - can enjoy the best of all worlds: a dynamic and young population of citizens, creating a unique, vibrant and creative culture unique to the Emirates – and a globally competitive business environment.
Competing for and attracting talent from around the world is a great benefit to doing business in the UAE. But enterprises need to be able to harness these talents effectively, both individually and collectively. This means effective teamwork – not just a team that works, but a world-class team that is innovative and performing to a very high level.
Teamwork is one of the essential ingredients in the success of any organisation. A successful team is a powerful resource, one that benefits from the collective skills, experience, commitment and creativity of its diverse members.
Developing and leading an effective, high-performing team is a challenge to every organisation, anywhere in the world. Here in Dubai, however, there is the added challenge of the highly multicultural workplace. The key to creating a great team is not only finding balanced individuals but assembling a group of people who together create a balanced team.
What are the challenges of cross-cultural teams? For multicultural team leaders, the diversity of cultures can make everything that/so much more challenging, and so a manager needs a very highly developed set of skills. Managers need to be adept at decoding culture and then using this knowledge to lead and manage effectively.
Generally, the primary challenges of building and leading multicultural teams break down into four categories: how do the various cultures represented by your team handle issues of communications, hierarchy and status, decision-making, and building trust?
There are many definitions of ‘culture’ from many gurus on the subject, but it is essentially the framework through which our behaviour develops, whether it be the social environment or structure we come from or, in a business context, the network, company or industry culture in which we build our careers.
‘Culture’ impacts teams in every way – from the selection of team members to the protocols governing the way the team works, communications, use of time, and attitude towards risk.
Every staff member will bring aspects of their culture to their approach to teamwork – including all the baggage of attitudes and behaviours. A multicultural team is potentially a powerful synergistic situation, but also one with a risk of misunderstanding and conflict that could undermine the performance of the team.
The experienced team leader will spend time considering the behaviours linked to the various cultures of the team members and map their cultural preferences and values – in other words, decoding the team’s culture. How does a team manager start the process of decoding culture? Assessing the individuals on your team, to determine more about their attitudes and behaviours, can be a very useful exercise. Some key questions to consider:
Rules: Is their culture universalistic (adhering strictly to set rules) or particularistic (flexible view of rules)? Decision-making: Is it based on a consensual or a top-down approach (i.e., led by the boss)?
Trust: Is it built through working together on tasks or developed through social/personal relationships outside of work?
Taking the time to decode culture will help you unlock the full potential of the high-performing multicultural team: mutual trust – the glue that holds the team together; the right approach to communication; and the ability to manage and resolve conflict, regardless of culture.
Getting it right is tough, but the rewards that come from developing an effective multicultural team make it a critical management priority – and it applies to teams throughout an organisation, from the board of directors down.
Professor Arun Singh OBE is an international lawyer in private practice, board director, and a corporate educator working with The University of Manchester’s executive education programme in the Middle East.