Working with and leading multicultural teams

Arif Harbott
Arif Harbott

I am off to consult in Brazil next week so I have been brushing up on how to work effectively  with multicultural teams.  Most people recognise the value of diverse teams in terms of delivering more varied viewpoints and ideas, but in order to lead effectively you need to take into account cultural differences.

The right start

A face-to-face kickoff meeting essential for new teams it puts “a name to a face” which can be very helpful for virtual teams.  It is an opportunity to talk about the obvious details of success criteria, roles, responsibilities and project details. However, the most effective teams also discuss how often they will communicate, communication preferences e.g. email vs. phone, flexibility needs, working styles, best practice and skill development.

Communication styles

Communicating effectively is a big challenge for multicultural teams because communication styles differ so much across cultures. For team members to work through these differences, they first have to understand that people communicate differently.

  • Direct communicators – say what is on their mind, and they deal with conflict by addressing it promptly
  • Indirect communicators –  speak around an issue, use nonverbal cues and carefully choose words to avoid offense
  • Informal communication – communicate informally, speak as equals, avoid titles, interrupt or speak over each other
  • Formal communication – polite, wait their turn to speak, wait for their manager to speak first

Leaders need recognise such dynamics and develop an environment that brings out the best performance of all individuals.


Accents and the quality of spoken language have become major challenges for multicultural teams.  Language difficulties can impede conversations, which may have to be planned ahead so messages can be conveyed accurately. To combat this employees can:

  • Develop listening skills
  • Be respectful
  • Speaking more slowly
  • Avoid slang or idioms
  • Be patient

Team leadership

Leadership styles also vary. In Anglo-Saxon cultures leaders generally adopt a more egalitarian style with people free to express their opinions and disagree. In other cultures, such as those in Asia and the Middle East, leaders have a more hierarchical style. Team members will generally be more subdued in expressing their opinions and will take their cues regarding decisions from the team leader.

A team leader who recognises this dynamic and takes the time to coach team members can go a long way to resolving this issue and making sure all team members are heard.

Source: Mine the potential of multicultural teams by Sangeeta Gupta

Working with and leading multicultural teams
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