The challenge of achieving unity in diversity

Actualizado: 22 jun 2021

Globalization has brought different nationalities and cultures in countries and companies together. Nowadays, it is important for internationally operating organizations to be aware of cultural differences since their employees often work in teams with members from all over the world.

Significant dissimilarities between people from different countries and ethnicities, or with a different religion, can cause problems and might hinder the group from being productive and efficient. Even though, basic knowledge regarding suitable language or nonverbal gestures exists, when working in international teams or doing business with companies from abroad, certain behaviors that seem to be obvious for one person, might be perceived differently by people coming from different societies.

What influences cultural intelligence?

Sometimes, diversity differences are based on Geert Hofstede’s famous cultural dimensions (masculinity, power distance, individualism, uncertainty avoidance), others on Edward Hall’s approach related to communication styles. The crux of the matter is: how can we avoid that multiculturalism affects the organization in a negative way? How can we improve our understanding of our colleagues in order to make teamwork as efficient as possible?

The goal is to assure the exploitation of various diversity advantages at workplace, learning to think outside the box. Thus, new innovative results arise more likely with a multicultural workforce due to people’s different approaches to solve problems. All together permits tolerance, connected to cooperation improvement, to grow. This makes companies also more flexible regarding upcoming and necessary changes. In order to make diversity beneficial, advantages need to outweigh disadvantages, so as to avoid the problems that can occur.

In this regard, Cultural Intelligence (closely related to emotional intelligence) is becoming increasingly important and it is defined as the ability to function well within an environment of prevailing cultural diversity. Both terms equally imply that one should think first and then act, which helps to free from stereotypes. Three key steps to achieve it are:

  • Learn to understand other cultures (head)

  • Act consequently (body)

  • Motivation to overcome barriers (heart)

All in all, having a low level of this ability can be disadvantageous, especially for managers with cross-functional working fields.

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How can we effectively manage multicultural teams?

Start by thinking first about what could be potential obstacles that a diverse group faces on its way to success, and being aware of them. It was already pointed out as the head-component, in the article of Christopher Earley & Elaine Mosakowski’s - Cultural Intelligence (Harvard Business Review).

Another important aspect is to recognize barriers, a frequent example are the ones resulting from different communication styles (indirect vs. direct). Cultures with an indirect style (Japanese, Indians or Saudi Arabians), leave more room for different interpretations to cultures with a direct style. Likewise, indirect style cultures can get offended by Western cultures, where great majority uses direct language style. Additionally, obstacles arise when there are team members not able to speak group’s prevailing language.

Subsequently, those persons cannot express themselves the way they wished, a common result is that they are perceived to have less expertise, which in turn causes frustration and lack of motivation. It is also important to take culture’s affinity to steep or flat hierarchy structures into consideration.

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Team members, who are used to steep hierarchies, will feel uncomfortable when their treatment does not change according to different statuses, typical of flat hierarchy. Some members might need more research to come to conclusion than others, on the contrary, some take decisions rather quickly which affects decision-making.

Often, it is recognized too late that the source of a team conflict lies in prevailing cultural differences. Therefore, only knowing and being aware of those sources of conflicts is already worth a lot. At the same time, evaluating the environment in which the team is working is essential. For example, special conditions need to be taken into consideration such as temporariness of the team because time pressure can be an important factor that changes how groups work and make certain prioritizations regarding necessary cultural adaptation.

Further possible actions to take

We cannot miss to take further actions, which represent the body-component, while working with foreign team members or clients, especially from outside Europe. Most importantly, we need to learn about cultures peculiarities and try to adapt to them. Another solution could be setting rules in the very beginning and telling each other about personal working style and preferred way of communication, so that misunderstandings can be avoided.

Then, the team leader decides about the right approach. In some cases it is also useful to ask for help of the manager at the right point in time, he could speak at the start of a project to the members communicating the challenges that are most likely to arise (e.g. fluency of a language). However, it is important that problems in a team are solved internally first so that members learn from the process.

As nice as multiculturalism sounds, the challenge is to manage it well; otherwise it can do more harm than good, since there is a high potential for conflicts to emerge within a group. As we have seen, everything starts with Cultural Intelligence. We distinguish cultural characteristic peculiarities, however, we often forget them and lose patience and motivation when under pressure (heart-component).

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  • Soon Ang & Linn Van Dyne – Handbook of Cultural Intelligence (Chapter 1)

  • Jared Lewis – The Advantages of Multiculturalism in the Workplace.

  • Nicholas Gabris - Cultural differences: inevitability in a global economyltural differences: inevitability in a global economy.

  • Taylor H. Cox, Stacy Blake – Managing cultural diversity: implications for organizational competitveness.

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