Having spent many years working overseas, I’ve attended my fair share of cultural awareness training. The typical agenda goes something like this: an introduction to the country, it’s population and religion, followed by my favourite section – a list of dos and don’ts.

Am I saying we shouldn’t offer these sessions? Absolutely not. They can be extremely valuable for the intrepid professional embarking on their first adventure in a new part of the world. But what if you’re an experienced manager, who has inherited a multicultural team?

‘Brainstorming? What’s that?’

In my first role in the Middle East, I was expected to flawlessly manage an Arab local, an Indian, an Egyptian, a Brit with an Indian heritage and a Canadian with Palestinian roots. Knowing some facts about my new country was great, but what was the best way to manage my new team?

I made a lot of mistakes. An understanding of car pooling, working late and taking part in brainstorming sessions are just some of the things I took for granted. In this brave new world I had to translate these to: organising drivers, negotiating project deadlines and ‘what if’ sessions.

Time, teamwork and…Hofstede

My first lesson was this: my team would have to learn to work with me as much as I had to learn to deliver results with and through them.

My second lesson came through the research of Professor Geert Hofstede. His ‘Five Cultural Dimensions’ model provides a great starting point for those keen to learn how culture plays out in the workplace. It provided me with some great ‘aha’ moments in terms of handling different scenarios within a multicultural team.

If you choose to work overseas, cultural awareness isn’t just about knowing how to act and behave in the host country. Chances are you are going to be interacting with other people from different cultures in both professional and social settings. Taking the time to explore your own culture may help these new relationships flourish.

Savvy sailing

My cultural journey helped me develop one of the most effective and close-knit teams that I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. As a manager, I matured and learned to appreciate diversity in the workplace.

So, my third lesson comes from a quote by Mark Twain: ‘In 20 years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

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Written by Sarah Keast, General Manager, People & Organisational Development

I’m a people developer through and through. From watching a ‘lightbulb’ moment in a workshop to seeing a person’s face when they get promoted. That’s what it’s all about for me!

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5 Responses to “Managing multicultural teams: exploring new shores”

  1. Donald Wilson says:

    Sarah,

    Outstanding!

    Living and working in Kazakhstan has emersed me into both the Kazakh and Russian cultures! They are similar, however, very different as the Kazakh’s are more similar to the Turks. My experience with working with First Nations in NW Ontario, certainly provided a ‘cultural sensitivity’ knowledge and experience too which I am very grateful.

    Thanks for the reference to the “Five Cultural Dimensions”, I will get a copy of this book and read it during my next rotation out.

    Keep up the outstanding work!

  2. Mohamed says:

    Very interesting topic and;

    -Culture diversity from my point of view could be key success/failure factor of any organization where if it is not managed well through effective communications and team building it will not help. Those intellectual capital with rich culture expertize they are the real players as they can take care of their team productivity. For me it is how to ask the right question in the right style to the right person.

    -Also Culture management is always individual decision where if you did not see the urgency of learning how to deal with the other you will fail. Having said that I’m seeing allot of expat (Arab & Non-Arab) coming to GCC without doing their homework about this area. And yes HR doing this culture awareness…etc. but if you are not willing it will not work.

    Have a nice day

  3. Abdulla says:

    Having lived in west for more than ten years, and coming back home (Middile east) i noticed the influence of living abroad on the cultural and local rituals or habitts. I agree cultural awarness training is vital, however, it is the tolerance (or lake of it) of the native people (wehther westren or eastren); that amplifyies the impact the noncorformity to local customes. There are many factors that affect this as well, social and economical aspects; as well as seasonal and environmental or even media influences. Having said that cultural awarness sessions need to be tailor made and like organizational policies; in need of routine review.

    A friend of mine lived in japan for few years, when he returned we noticed how carefully he took his shoes off and put them aside before entering a house. I studied in UK and being on time became a habit of mine, however back home people are more layed back when it comes to appointments. The question is what is standaridized proffessional business behaviour??

  4. Martin McKowen, vice president operational support and analysis at Jamieson Group Marty McKowen says:

    Good work Sarah,

    You mentioned a knowledge of your own culture as being a key element, it certainly is one of them. Another is the ability to suspend judgement. Instead of seeing something and immediately pronouncing “that is WRONG” it takes patience and empathy to try to understand the reasons why something was done in a certain way.

    Culture is largely the attitudes that influence the observable, therefore, to change or work within a culture it is important to understand the attitudes and what influences those attitudes.

    cheers

    Marty

  5. Kaunain Shahidi says:

    Well, whatever the cultural background is…as a human being the common factor is ‘Love’…lets touch the heart and get going…