By Tamara Pupic
Tamara Pupic examines what is needed to perform effectively and appropriately in an international business environment
Multiculturalism has become an important topic for business leaders due to increasingly diverse workforces and diverse consumer groups.
However, the topic is not only relevant for multinational corporations and internet-based companies, but also for a variety of start-ups and small businesses operating in a global environment such as the UAE.
With more than 200 different nationalities living and working together in Dubai alone, people are becoming culturally interdependent and businesses can thrive only by finding common ground across cultural and ethnic groups.
In her book Managing Challenges in Multicultural Teams, Kristin J. Behfar, an associate professor at the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, identified four main challenges faced by multicultural teams:
Direct versus indirect confrontation
This category involves cultural differences in preferences for open disagreement and confrontation versus a more consensus building approach.
For example, a consensus building style can in certain cultures be perceived as “less efficient” or “passive” while an individualistic communication style can be described as “impatient” and “bullying”.
In the case of escalation of interpersonal tensions, a manager should refocus group on the superordinate goal, smooth over interpersonal tensions or serve as the final decision maker.
Norms for problem solving and decision-making
Teams may experience differences in preference for a more slow-paced analytical problem solving and relationship building process versus a more efficiency focused approach.
Establishing norms for approaching work is a challenge in multicultural teams since certain members might prefer to focus on the numbers and the “hard facts”, which is a check-list or efficiency approach, while others want to include “soft” variables in decision-making such as face saving, which is a more holistic approach.
If it’s not possible to allow the two different approaches to co-exist, a manager should impose a structure which will block any such differences among team members.
Time, urgency and pace
There are many differences in time estimates to deliver products and the definition of “on time” delivery among nationalities.
In the multicultural teams, there are also many ways to interpret a member arriving late to a meeting – in certain cultures an on-time arrival to events is considered as “rude” while in others the late arrival is considered as “offensive.”
In most cases, a manager is called upon to make the final decision about how long work should take or by what time all team members should be present.
Work norms and behaviour
Differences about what is acceptable workplace etiquette stemming either from national customs and norms range from rules about not eating during meetings to the norms for not interrupting others with questions.
Also, in certain teams members are expected to spend their personal time after work in building relationships with clients while in other cultures employees are expected to put in their work effort only between commonly agreed upon work hours.
In many cases, the team can understand and justify a member’s behaviour and look for way to socialise him or her.
However, when the offender refuses to adapt, a manager should set the expectations and monitor adherence to them.
Following these four pieces of advice successfully requires a multicultural manager - a manager who is skilled at bridging different cultures at work since he or she has managed to integrate various cultural differences internally as well.
However, André Laurent, a researcher at INSEAD, studied expatriate executives at IBM and other major multinationals, and published his main conclusions in an article symbolically titled Once a Frenchman, always a Frenchman.
His research shows that experienced expatriates learnt to behave as “global” executives, but at some later stage this effort actually reinforced their identification with their own culture of origin. In other words, their social identity conflicted with their deeply felt inner personal identity.
Therefore, a balance of integration between cultures is required for effective bridging both externally and internally.
Other personal traits of a successful multicultural manager include being extroverted, assertive, and sociable, while the experience of living in multiple cultures can help but is not necessarily crucial.
The reason is that the length of stay in a multicultural environment is not a strong determinant of multicultural skills.
Here are some tips on how to develop them:
• Become fluent is as many languages as you can
• Get familiar with each of the local cultures you’re working in
• Understand the behavioural adjustments needed for each particular market
• Understand the behavioural adjustments needed by each team member
• Organise team-building activities focused on learning about each other
• Use ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and flatten your leadership structure
• Minimise conflict by focusing employees on company vision