HBR Management Tip Reaction: September 12th- Managing Multicultural Teams

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HBR Tip 9/12/16

Managing a multicultural team can be tough. Communication styles vary, and there may be differences in conventions around time, giving feedback, and disagreeing publicly. To overcome these differences, set clear norms and stick to them. Start by taking into account what will work best for your team as a whole. Be aware that there may be team members who find it harder to meet certain expectations because of their cultural backgrounds. For example, if you have established that team members must arrive at meetings exactly on time (Western-style punctuality), you’ll need to reinforce that norm consistently across the group and remind non-Westerners why being on time matters. Of course, sometimes things change and adjustment is required, but keeping a consistent, clear structure for work styles and expectations is a critical way to create a common-ground team culture. Adapted from “How to Build Trust on Your Cross-Cultural Team,” by Andy Molinsky and Ernest Gundling

Speaking from my experience as an ESL Trainer in South Korea, this is much easier said than done.  So I’m going to break this reaction down into two parts; When you’re a member of a multi-cultural team and when you’re leading a multi-cultural team.

Member of a Team:

  • Remember that your team leader may not share the same background as yourself. When working as a member of the team, find a team member who can act as a communicator between you and the team leader if you don’t share the same background. During my tenure in Korea, at first I tried to be the bold American, doing things the way I would have done them if I were in the United States. I realized very quickly that in order to get something accomplished when working with other teachers on my staff, it was critical that I speak with my Korean co-teacher first. We needed plan the best way to request the things I needed from home-room teachers or school management.  This required that my co-teacher and I developed TRUST.  I needed to trust that she could help me best achieve my goal of teaching my students, or it was going to be a long semester.

Leader of a Team:

  • Set clear and deliverable expectations and delivery dates, and stick to them. For example, establish clear review cycles during a modules development and do not allow your team to fall behind. As the team leader, it is my job take stock of the materials, budgets, and strengths of my team, as well as, making sure the team knows that I am ultimately responsible for the final product.  If we want to work together again, a sense of trust needs to be developed. I know from working with subcontractors from UpWork, eLance, etc. that off shore talent can be a fantastic asset to help increase your organization’s capabilities. However, make sure you recognize the limitations of your team as well. For example, if English isn’t your contractor’s first language, then make sure if you are working on English language module, you check their work! It’s not a question of lack of trust, but rather of expertise.

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