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Our communities are like rainbows, every color is unique, every color is pretty when used right but it can appear quite ugly when misused. A diverse, multicultural work environment is the same; it needs to be handled well to be effective just as the rainbow looks pretty in the order it is, but if you put colors together without considering their individuality or their role in the whole, the end product would be signify chaos instead of perfect beauty.
Here are 23 tips for working in a multicultural team:
1. Flexibility is the key to working in a multicultural environment; the work environment always demands flexibility on your part, but in a multicultural environment the adaptation becomes all the more important. The flexibility that is so important in dealing with anything that does not confirm to our own beliefs ensures your coworkers feel you are not judging them by religion or race, in a work environment, and as humans, their personal qualities and the value of their work matters, never the color of their skin.
Essential reading: 25 Ways Project People Can Train Their Mental Flexibility
2. Develop understanding for different cultures and values and respect those differences. Americans enjoy the A-OK sign but a Brazilian would be highly offended by the same. There are religious practices too, some people do not eat a certain type of meat based on religious beliefs, some do not eat meat at all and some try everything. As a team member you have to learn to not look down on anyone who does not confirm to your beliefs and it never hurts to go out of the way to accommodate others at times, if its Devali festival for your Hindu colleague, or Eid celebrations for a Muslim colleague, you can win them over by covering for them while they join their families for the day and you can convey your sincerity that way too.
3. Work culture differs across the globe; Western office environments might appreciate candid views from employees but you will likely come across co-workers from other continents who have more respect for authority, sometimes irrespective of how insane the order sounds to them, or how they can themselves propose something far better. Build working relationships across the board so your coworkers are not afraid to come out with views. If there is something wrong with a project that someone in your team picked out, the team should know about it to ensure it does not harm the project later. For instance, if you are working on setting up a call center in another country and the local lead you have in that country does not tell you the whole planning is going to go to waste because of a local Government policy or the country’s work ethics, you are wasting a lot of time and money that would have been saved if the communication was not so faulty.
4. Do not overkill with sweeping generalizations. Quite often when you are dealing with people, you come to know that the stereotypes are very fallible. Look around you in the same culture as you have and you will not find everyone confirming to your views so do not expect all Asians or all European co-workers to be similar. Use the stereotypes but only to get a vague idea of what a person might be like, the rest you still have to get to know through observation and interaction.
Essential reading: Project managers cannot rely on generalizations
5. Regardless of the religion, ethnic or cultural background of a person, everyone has to be treated ‘fairly’. People should always be chosen for specific tasks and in lead roles for their capabilities alone. If, for instance, an Asian, or an African is the suitable choice for the team lead over a predominantly European workforce, fairness demands that the person gets the task he deserves. It is the task of the management and the individuals in the team to make sure they do not treat their new team lead with less respect than they would give to another European. The easier way in terms of maintaining the status quo is thought to be giving the lead to the next best person for the job when a minority representative qualifies for a team lead; this however means your work environment is already racially charged.
6. Make sure you convey your desire to be sensitive to another’s culture early enough. The first impression actually can be the last impression so it is very important that you convey your sensitivity and respect for the cultural difference before the other person makes up their mind about you.
7. Often enough, people like to speak and not listen but how often have you seen that the best of friends is described as one who ‘listen’? Develop the quality to listen to what others think. Of course what you have to say matters too, but by listening first you can actually avoid a number of diplomatic blunders that ruin relationships before they even begin to form.
8. Do not impose your own set of values on others; it is the easiest way to lose respect in a multicultural environment because values usually are what you grow up with and every individual has the intrinsic need to defend them. Be ready to take constructive feedback instead.
9. Remember that differences of culture or values should not be reason for communication gaps. This point relates to the preceding one as well, since it means you have to make an effort to find ways to set others at ease around you. If you have someone on the team who has ideas but can not communicate them it is up to you to make sure the team does not suffer because of it. Learn to listen well and give others the confidence to be able to communicate with you by showing respect.
10. Arguing gets you nowhere but being able to convince others does. A fistfight may result in one clear winner, but it never gets you respect, only fear. So remember to keep your communication friendly because the moment it feels like the discussion is turning into an argument, the defensiveness that creeps naturally into the responses makes sure you can neither convince nor be convinced yourself. Develop your interpersonal skills so you can communicate with your team members from others cultures more effectively.
11. Give people the chance to communicate their views, share your own, and as with any discussion, it is important to let the other person know you are listening and thinking over their views too. Be open minded in accepting logic never-ever tell people their views are ‘wrong’. There are many more diplomatic words in use that can save face for the other person as well as let logic rule the discussion. If you can be that courteous and can show respect you are building bridges without losing anything.
12. Win friends. Whatever culture you belong to, the idea is to be sincere towards your fellow workers. If you win their trust, you usually win friends too who will usually in turn try to accommodate you as much as possible. Remember, friendship and respect are common to all cultures.
13. Many think it important to treat others as they want to be treated. It’s a good rule to go by if you are sure the other person wants the same thing as you do. In a diverse workplace though, that is rarely the case between two different cultures. I may want you to look me in the eye when we are talking, your looking away might be a sign of your disinterest or avoidance to me, and my looking into your eyes might be rudeness and bossiness to you. The golden rule is to treat others as they want to be treated. But of course you have to be interested enough to find out exactly how.
14. We already discussed how gestures have different meanings in different cultures, you have to observe, be interested in other cultures to know about what is considered positive and what is negative in another culture. To take this a step further, especially when dealing with people from another culture in person, make it a point to read body the language.
15. As odd as it may sound, time differences are not just about the time zones. Different cultures and the work ethics of different work cultures also affect how people view time. Let us take another stereotype then: an American would take a 2 PM meeting to mean the other person should available at 2 PM sharp. In 5-10 minutes from that time, the American will leave thinking you did not live up to your commitment. But in some Asian countries, setting a ‘time’ for a meeting is quite often taken as a vague landmark so the Asian counterpart might be 20-30 minutes late for the meeting because it is not a big deal to him at all. For you this can appear as a waste of time. You can either put up with the situation or you can go back to team culture that needs to be built for a diverse team to function.
16. The idea is to find out what motivates the individuals in your team and you can solve half the problems in your workplace through intelligent use of that knowledge while raising them above the normal day to day though processes. If I am motivated towards a goal, and if I think it is achievable, I will feel I have stakes in the whole project, its then that things really start to fall in place.
17. You might not get along with your neighbor much but if the wife is averse to your watching the ball game this weekend, something bigger than the difference, the passion for the game, may bring out your desire to put all differences aside and watch the game together. That’s just an everyday example, when teams have something bigger than the differences they have amongst them, they will put everything aside to concentrate on their goals. Inspiration is vital in such situations, if the common goal clicks, if the team is dedicated to achieving the goal, they will find the thing common amongst them, like deadlines and project related troubles, instead of things that divide.
Essential reading: Dear Project Manager: Why Should Anyone Want To Work For You?
18. Create a sense of awareness in your workplace about the diversity of your team and about the workplace problems such as racism, etc. You and your colleagues should know about the signs of things starting to go wrong. Unless you educate yourself about a problem, there is a huge chance that you will not have thought on the matter before you make a mistake, or come into contact with anyone who commits racist acts, or passes racist comments which go unchecked.
19. Never think ethnic jokes or insults to be trivial; what may look like an insignificant little comment to you can be detrimental to another person’s peace of mind. A bad joke can make or break the cohesion of your team so be sure that your work environment is free or racial or religious or even sexual bias, if someone violates the policies on those matters, its is a very serious offense and it should be dealt as such so the message goes out to the offender as well as the person targeted.
20. Some people do need special attention. Treating everyone the same way does not always constitute a fair behavior. The clichés do not hold once you get to the crux of the matter; humans are diverse, so are our cultures and our capabilities. If you are talking to a person with minimal English skills, which do not negatively affect his work, the same way you would talk to someone whose native language is English, you are being unfair to the non native speaker. Give those who need space, more room to maneuver, give them special attention and use their capabilities by making sure they understand the goals completely instead of falling to prey to a false sense of fairness. And of course, always-always, back your oral communication about the project with written communication that can be looked at if someone does not understand perfectly or forgets a point. That holds for all teams.
21. Mere words are not enough; you may say a lot about how you understand different cultures or how you respect them, but your deeds and your decision making is your best spokesperson. What you do and how you behave shows your actual views. If you say everyone in the team is equal in your eyes and yet you end up ridiculing another’s culture you are practically showing your words meant nothing. Very few people can judge the intentions behind your comment so even if you did not mean to insult a culture the point remains; make it a habit to weigh your words before you speak in a multicultural environment, very little is needed to spark corrosive hatred amongst people when it comes to racial comments or disrespectful statements about another’s religion or values.
22. Periodical work environment reviews can be helpful in finding out what problems, if any, people are facing in your office regarding how they are treated because of their race, religion or culture. These candid reviews or questionnaires can help the management gauge where they stand in forming a positive and diverse work environment. Based on the views of different people in the office, you can then implement ways to solve the problems faced. And lets face it, some people will be troublemakers all the way but the management will at least have the chance to find out how they can tackle that person and when held in the balance, if the team should try to integrate him or should he be sent packing to raise the team again. A real ‘team’ will always be bigger than the individual because there is so much more potential to excel.
23. Don’t let personality or cultural clashes ruin your work environment. Multinational companies, or those hiring multicultural teams, often have problems with one cultural group at loggerheads with another cultural group or even an individual. The idea is to instill the spirit in your team to stick together irrespective and above considerations of cultural differences. Cohesion comes from association, mutual respect plus the sharing of good and bad times together, so make sure you are a part of a cohesive whole. If you are a project manager, your team needs you to lift it and share time together, if you are just a member of a diverse and multicultural team, be sure to still try and develop a relationship with your fellow workers. Remember that not all cultures enjoy the same type of food. There will be members who are prohibited in their religion to drink alcohol, make sure they have a drink they would rather have instead when you toast success, just showing your desire to accommodate the other members in the team does a lot to break the ice. After that, it is up to you to make sure it never gets that cold in your workplace again.