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Multicultural meeting with an alien in attendance
Multicultural (and inter-planetary) teams can be very creative if you are aware of the challenges.

International & Multicultural Teams

Diverse teams are creative teams and since creativity feeds innovation, diverse teams are also great for innovation. Leading a team with people from other countries and cultures is a fantastic way to add diversity. People born and raised in other countries, or even those raised in your country by immigrant parents, have different backgrounds, are used to doing things in different ways and bring new insights to the team. In short, an international and multicultural team can be incredibly powerful when it comes to creativity.

Or it can be a complete disaster.

As team leader, it is largely up to you to ensure that you benefit from potential rather than lose from misunderstanding.


Benefits

Research has shown that living, but not travelling, abroad boosts creative thinking ability. It is assumed that this because living in other cultures makes one aware that there are many different ways of doing day to day things -- ways that one might not have experienced in one's home country. If your team includes expatriates, they are probably among the more creative people in the group. They are also likely to have insights that nationals, who have never lived abroad, might not have. Likewise, team members from your country, but who have lived abroad can provide creative insights.

If you are working with an international team where members are working in their own countries, and you are communicating remotely, you can still tap into their knowledge. When looking at your own products and services as well as how your customers use them, always ask those in other countries about how products are used and perceived in their home countries and how people might do similar things without your products.

For example, in countries like Thailand and India, you can buy single cigarettes and small, single-use packets of such personal hygiene products as shampoo. These are suitable for people being paid cash on a daily basis. (But detrimental to smokers trying to stop! When I lived in Bangkok, the first time I tried stopping smoking, I would not allow myself to buy a pack of cigarettes, but I occasionally weakened and bought just one! Fortunately, a while later I did stop for good!)

Or, did you know that some of the most innovative work on monetary transactions and banking by mobile telephone is happening not the USA or Europe, but in Africa? Many villages are impossibly far from a bank, meaning all transactions need to be in cash. However, this makes it difficult when family members go to the big city, or even abroad, to work. Sending money home used to be difficult and expensive. Now it can easily be done by mobile telephone. In developed countries, we have robust banking systems, bank cards, credit cards and more, reducing the need for mobile money transactions. Hence mobile banking development has been slower.

In some countries, such as India where marriages are often arranged, on-line dating is done as much by parents seeking the right partner for their children as by the children themselves.

Question: If you were setting up an international on-line dating site, how would you best deal with that?

Answer: ask an Indian!

When all kinds of day-to-day activities are done differently, it leads to people solving problems differently from culture to culture. What is conventional in Japan might be very unconventional in Brazil. If you have team members from different countries and cultures -- don't push them to adapt to your company's homeland culture. Instead, exploit the insights and creativity they can offer you!

Threats

There are two challenges you face with multinational and multicultural teams: language and behaviour.

Language

English has become the international language of business. Many, if not most, international companies established outside of English speaking countries have established English as the corporate language. Nearly all businesspeople working internationally are fluent or nearly fluent in English. However, Brits, Americans, Australians and other native English speakers often forget that being fluent in English is not the same as growing up in New York or London.

Firstly, non-native speakers may have vast vocabularies, but be unfamiliar with slang and idioms (a phrase of two or more words in which the meaning is not obvious based on the meanings of the individual words; for example "to jump the gun" means to do something too soon). In my experience, the British tend to be particularly bad about using idioms in mixed national groups.

Ironically, at least for Europeans, long, obscure words are more easily understood as they often come from Latin and so are in use in many languages. Short idioms, on the other hand, can be hard to understand.

Comprehension Gap

Even very fluent people, especially if they are not actually living in an English speaking environment, can take a split second longer to grasp the meaning of something they have heard and another split second to formulate a reply. This delay is even longer in someone not so fluent. In one-on-one conversation, this is not an issue. But in a meeting, where a lot of ideas are being exchanged quickly, non-native English speakers may find it hard to keep up and to contribute.

There are two things you can do to deal with this. Firstly, prepare people for the meeting. If you want ideas about how to solve a particular problem, ask everyone to come to the meeting with a couple of suggestions. Secondly, during the meeting, ask specific people for their thoughts and be prepared to ask others to keep quiet when you do this.

Try and do this in a way that does not make the person being questioned feel bad.

"Maria, you usually have good ideas. What do you suggest?"

"Roger, please let Maria speak, then I'd love to hear your feedback on her thoughts"

Bilingual Teams

There is an interesting problem that crops up when you have teams that include people from two countries. For example, an American firm merges with a German firm. Teams will typically include Germans and Americans and involve virtual meetings as well as live meetings. Although the Germans probably all speak excellent English, they are living in Germany and communicating in German most of the time. As a result, some (especially those who have lived in an English speaking country) will be significantly more fluent than others.

In such a scenario, this sort of thing typically happens: the Americans talk about a particular important issue. One or more of the Germans does not understand and so whispers to a German colleague for an explanation. The German colleague whispers a translation back again. Two unfortunate things happen here. Firstly, the two Germans miss out on anything being said during the translation. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, the Americans become annoyed with the Germans. They see and hear the Germans talking among themselves in German and feel left out. They have no idea what the Germans are saying and may even feel they are mocking the Americans. (Read about the research on this issue here)

Clearly, such feelings can dampen team spirit and put a wall up between the Americans and Germans, hampering the potential of the team.

There are a few things you can do here. Firstly, I strongly recommend that you have the Americans take some German language classes. Unless they keep it up for a long time, they will never become as fluent as the Germans. But it will enable them better to emphasise with the linguistic challenges the Germans face, it will show good will to the Germans and it will enable the Americans to understand some basics of what the Germans are saying (if the Germans use hochdeutsch, anyway).

You can also make an effort to ensure both sides are fully prepared for the topic of the meeting. If you want ideas, you may suggest that people in each country first prepare a creative vision -- or at least have a few ideas prepared, in their local teams. Then use the virtual meeting to bring the visions or ideas together.

Lastly, encourage the American members of the team to speak more slowly (those nervous of speaking up are actually likely to speak faster), avoid idioms and ask questions. Asking, "do you understand?" is not a good question. People instinctively say, "yes". Asking, "What do you think, Heike? This is your area of expertise." gives Heike a chance to ask questions. This, in turn, gives everyone in the meeting a deeper understanding of the topic.

Cultural Behaviour

The last thing you have to be aware of is cultural behaviour. Germans, for instance, tend to be more critical of each other's ideas than are Americans. So, where a German might accept a stinging critique of her ideas, an American might be offended. For the Chinese, on the other hand, to be publicly criticised is shameful as it causes them to lose face. However, if you meet with a Chinese member of your team privately, to criticise her actions or ideas, it will be accepted and very likely appreciated.

However, this all gets more complicated when people move from their home countries to work in an international office. What happens when you have Americans, Germans, Belgians, Dutch, Japanese and Chinese all working in a research centre, operated by an American multinational, in Antwerp? To what extent have these people adapted to the Flemish culture of their living environment and the American culture of their office?

Probably, many of these people have softened their sensitivities as the result of international living. Nevertheless, it will only benefit you as team leader to understand these sensitivities and be sensitive to them. A great way to do this, and to get to know you team better, is to ask each member individually about these things. Perhaps take each member out to lunch individually to talk about their work in the team, their home country and what they find difficult about living in Belgium and working for the company. It might also be useful to put questions in the third person: "what do you think our Chinese colleagues find most difficult about working here?" It is always easier to talk about the weaknesses and sensitivities of others than of yourself.

It May Not Be Easy; But It Will Be Worth It

Clearly, getting the best out of an international team, and particularly an innovation team, requires a lot of effort. It won't be easy. It will require you open your mind not only to cultural differences that are interesting, but also to cultural differences you do not agree with. Bear in mind people from other cultures probably dislike aspects of your culture too!

But the innovation potential of a truly diverse, international and multicultural team is enormous in this globalised world of us. Make the effort. It is worth it!

 

Do You Want to Make the Most of International Teams?

Do you want to maximise the innovation potential of multinational and multicultural teams in your organisation? If so, perhaps I can help.

I can deliver a talk on multinational and multicultural teams to your managers and/or I can organise and lead interactive workshops to teach team leaders and team members how to get the most out of their teams.

Aside from being an acknowledged expert of creativity and innovation, I have lived and worked in six countries on three continents. I have launched companies in Europe and Asia and I have a deep understanding of the issues and complexities of multicultural and international teams.

To talk about your situation and your potential, contact me!

 

 

Want to Discuss This With Me?

If so, get in touch. I'd love to chat about it with you!



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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium