An organization consisting of people from the same cultural background no longer is the norm. Today you might find yourself working in the Middle East branch of a U.S.-based multinational company among employees who are mainly from South Asia and dealing with business partners based out of Europe and Australia. But the increased connection among countries and the globalization of corporations haven’t resulted in the disappearance of cultural differences. On the contrary, cultural barriers often go up, presenting organizations with new challenges.

As the world gets smaller and as information technology and communications evolve, a manager must know how to lead a multicultural team. During the initial phase of my career as a controller, I was working for a German multinational company based in the Middle East and North Africa region. My team consisted of people from disparate areas of Asia and Eastern Europe, people with different cultural and educational backgrounds. I also worked with diverse business partners. The experience made me more adaptive to cultural shocks and changes. If you are learning how to lead in a multicultural environment, here are a few tips:

  1. Cultural gaps. Try to understand the cultural gaps across your team. For example, in some parts of the world it isn’t advisable to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. In certain regions, it isn’t advisable to eat or drink in public during certain times of the year. A leader or manager should learn to respect the local culture.

  2. Language barriers. Though certain languages, such as English, are widely spoken, there could still be language barriers that hamper effective communication. While many non-native English speakers may have studied English as part of their education curriculum, they still could find it difficult to communicate effectively in English. This calls for a manager or a leader to be a patient listener and speaker who ensures clarity and understanding.

  3. Freedom from bias and prejudice. It should go without saying that a good manager and leader shouldn’t show favoritism or distaste for a team because of the cultural background of its members. The focus should be on performance and results.

  4. Adaptation to the local culture. A successful leader blends the universal principles of effective leadership with a multicultural mind-set. The result will have a positive impact on the organization as the leader becomes an integral part of the organizational process. Experts in international business agree that to succeed in global business, managers need the flexibility to respond positively and effectively to practices and values that may be drastically different from what they are accustomed to. This requires an ability to be open to the ideas and opinions of others.

  5. Corporate vision. While team harmony and company morale may call for flexibility and require ongoing adaptation to accommodate different cultural backgrounds, it’s imperative that the vision of the organization remain central. In working to adjust to the local culture, a leader or manager must establish balance and understand that the goal isn’t to lose well-known and ethical business practices in favor of cultural compliance.

  6. Team coordination and cooperation. The team should also work through any cultural differences and cooperate to achieve the desired results. A manager could ask two team members who don’t get along well due to cultural barriers to a joint lunch with the goal of reducing tension and improving team relations.

  7. Humility and patience. Leaders need to exhibit humility and patience when dealing with people in a multinational environment by working to show sincerity in learning the culture. An interest in the culture of each team member helps overcome cultural barriers.

  8. Employee recruitment and mobility. A leader must target recruiting efforts to bring diverse, multicultural candidates into the company. This could be achieved through diversifying talent recruitment sources or adjusting selection criteria to reward multicultural experience. There should also be an effort to expose staff to different cultures and geographic locations through a structured mobility program, i.e., relocating rising managers on both short-term projects and medium-term rotations through creation of global talent pools. This will ensure that multicultural leadership development is embedded throughout an organization’s talent management processes.

  9. Location differences. If a leader is working with teams based in different parts of the world, the time difference and holidays in each region need to be considered. For example, during my regional role as a financial analyst, I arranged to call one of the team members in Australia early in the morning to discuss financial reports to account for the 10-hour time difference. But the corporate policy of adhering to deadlines shouldn’t be disregarded because of such differences.

The process of acquiring a multicultural mind-set is based on the engagement of the universal principles of effective leadership. A strong leader adapts national culture norms to the target culture and leads the way in maintaining an atmosphere of inclusion. A leader who is able to recognize these cultural differences and set the right tone across the team or organization will succeed in today’s multicultural environment.


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