One of the emerging challenges of leadership is the question of how to lead a culturally diverse team. Whether this is as a leader of a global project team, a global or regional business leader or as the leader of a domestic team which is comprised of many different cultures.
The reality is that it isn’t always easy. The other reality is that we can do it, and do it well. In this article, I’ll share some ideas on how we can create a path of least resistance when it comes to building engagement in a culturally diverse team.
1. Change your lens
Probably the most important first step is to remember the quote by Anais Nin; “We don’t see things as they are…we see things as we are.” We can’t help but do this; it’s one of the ways we are wired. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean we can’t take our cultural glasses off and see people and situations through a different lens. In fact this is what I consider to be the starting point for effectively leading a culturally diverse team. It’s not about giving up who you are; rather it’s about finding a neutral place that allows your approach to be more open and empathic. If your team is comprised of multiple ethnicities, this first step is critical and creates a platform for building engagement in a meaningful and targeted manner.
2. Know how to build rapport
Let me clarify. We all know, in varying degrees, how to build rapport. But the way in which we build trust differs greatly between various cultures, and so the way you build rapport and develop relationships with your people will need to reflect this. For example, in the anglo-sphere, trust starts out from a task and competence base, and after we have established that you can do what you said you would do, we then move to getting to know who you are as a person. Throughout Asia, parts of eastern Europe and Sth America though, trust develops in the opposite way, where you need to share ‘who’ you are, and build a more personal rapport with the group you are seeking to work with, before you get on task. Well, in actual fact, the process of sharing and building a rapport is part of being ‘on task’ in these cultures.
If you are leading a culturally diverse team in your own country, and you only apply these first two steps, you will go a long way to building engagement in a more effective manner. Best of all, these steps are easy, and require little effort on your part; just an adjustment in style for each of your team members, just as you would consider adjusting your style to engage more effectively with highly outgoing or more shy or introverted team members.
To help you understand the cultural norms and behaviours of the people in your team, go to https://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html for a full description and links to the underpinning research of Prof Geert Hofstede.
3. Don’t Assume…Allow room for an flexible approach
You could consider this step a bit of a disclaimer…and it is. Simply because we are human, and are the result of how we are raised, where we are raised and the cards we’ve been dealt throughout life. I have coached many global workers over the years who are cultural outliers. That is, they don't quite fit with the cultural norms of their home country. Scandinavians, for example, who display a preference for winning at any cost and not at all displaying the relationship and collaboration oriented values that the Scandinavian region is well known for. And in Australia, a tough culture, I have coached many leaders who display a more tender approach; valuing relationships and being more open to change and changing goals.
What I’m suggesting is that if you apply step one, and commence from a neutral, and empathic position, you will soon see to what extent you need to adjust your rapport building approach (step two) and step three is always top of mind and will allow you to adjust further if appropriate.
The final word...
It is possible to build engagement in culturally diverse teams, and beyond borders. It just takes a little practice and discipline to start from a neutral position and not to introject our perceptions of what are right or wrong ways to behave. We attend many leadership courses and read leadership books that open our eyes to adjusting our approach to suit different working styles and personalities; and this is no different...it's just focusing on cultural style and preferences rather than personality preferences.