A multi-cultural team can bring significant advantages to business delivery through its ability to potentially tap-into a wider range of stakeholders, perhaps be able to bring a wider range of experiences and be able to generate a greater variety in options. As Claire Halverson and S. Aqeel Tirmizi state in their book Effective Multicultural Teams: Theory and Practice these types of teams can form an important strategic component for firms in today’s more globalised business operations.

Although not in itself a team structure per se, a multi-cultural composition in a team does add an extra dimension and so is being covered in our series of effective teams in the workplace. Again, your feedback and comments are always welcome.


What is it a multi-cultural team?

Multi-cultural teams may have members who reflect a wide range of differences such as age, social background, disability, sex, ethnic origin and part-timers. They may also have members from different cultural backgrounds requiring respect for unfamiliar customs and practices.  This is a quite separate issue from the range of skills and experience they bring to the team although these may have been influenced by their different life experiences.


Common problems found to multi-cultural team success

In addition to a particular team structure of perhaps it being a virtual team or a cross-functional team, multi-cultural teams bring not only their own opportunities but also their own problems. Five common problems often seen hindering a team from becoming effective include:

1. minorities: where the majority of the team come from one particular background, the one person who is different can feel isolated and not valued and so becomes unwilling to contribute fully.  Examples of familiar problems include teams where most people have been around for a long time and a young graduate joins with new ideas or where someone from a different ethnic background is made to feel excluded or where a woman joins an all-male team and tries to be more like a man in order to gain acceptance.

Troubleshooting tip: the objective is to strive for inclusion rather than allow exclusion to take root. The issues are likely to be sensitive or even part of ingrained prejudices and are unlikely to be resolved through superficial processes.  A start can be made by getting team members to attend the Diversity and Inclusion Workshop to make sure there is clarity around individual responsibility and also to provide useful talking points later.

2. mature teams: a mature team that has experienced little change of membership will undoubtedly have created its own norms and mini culture. Their behaviour may be offensive to new members who may lack the confidence to challenge or say they feel offended. Sometimes such new members become ostracised and isolated and this kind of behaviour may well be a form of harassment and bullying.  New team leaders and managers are not exempt from this syndrome and can find it extremely difficult to exert their legitimate authority.

Troubleshooting tip: team leaders should challenge bad behaviour, initially keeping discussion at an informal level and striving for inclusion and openness.

3. different diversity: where several kinds of diversity appear in one team, beware the tendency for cliques to develop.  Examples might be:

  • two or three members of one ethnic minority forming an in group and even speaking their first language as a way of excluding others;
  • older people adopting a we’ve been through all that before and it didn’t work the first time approach to new ideas; or
  • younger people assuming all older people are unable to adapt to new ways of working.

Troubleshooting tip: at regular team meetings agree and maintain ground rules for the way the team works together. The language at work is English so keep other languages for lunch breaks and outside work activities. Strive for inclusion, making sure older people’s experiences are valued but put in perspective and that younger people learn from the relevant past experiences. It may be appropriate to get different people to work together and keep changing around.

4. different contracts: where the team includes part-timers, permanent full-timers and contractors, there can be a tendency for resentments to build up. Contractors may be earning more money for doing the same work as their colleagues. Part-timers may (unwittingly) be made to feel like second class citizens.

Troubleshooting tip: The small details like timing of meetings can cause friction.  If there are regular team meetings, make sure they are not arranged on days when job-sharers are not working or at times when part-timers are not scheduled to work.  Communication is essential to team success where people are working different hours and it is worth the extra effort to check that individuals are receiving information without delay.

5. different cultures and religions: if there are several different cultures and religions represented in the team, great sensitivity will be needed in order to avoid unwitting discrimination. There may be strict requirements for religious observation e.g. orthodox Jews; there may be special ways of dressing such as the need for Muslim women to wear trousers or taboo behaviours such as avoiding shaking hands and different degrees of eye contact.  The possibilities are enormous and the key to success is to observe mutual respect and value other people’s differences.

Troubleshooting tip: work towards creating a team environment where people feel comfortable explaining aspects of their culture that differ from the mainstream. Cultural diversity is an endlessly fascinating area that should enrich everybody’ s experiences rather than cause problems.  Do not be afraid to ask individuals what they prefer to be called or to describe aspects of their culture that affect the way they work.  People usually like to be asked and will see the question as a sign of respect.


Nine steps for creating successful multi-cultural teams

The five issues identified above can be significant barriers to multi-cultural teams being effective in the workplace. Set out below are nine proactive steps to avoiding or at least minimising their affects. These steps, should in particular assist in what Morgan Henrie found in his work Multi-National Project Team Communications: International Cultural Influences, where multi-cultural teams tended to have lower power gradients and in-turn better communication and delivery.

1. Think beyond the usual categories of ethnic minorities, sex and disability - age, social background, sexual orientation, parents, part-timers are all significant factors affecting people’s behaviour;

2. Value everybody’s contribution, particularly if they come from a different background to your own.

3. Respect other people’s difference and remember you are different to them as much as they are different to you.

4. Challenge inappropriate language at the outset.

5. Beware of the response “it was only a joke” - Employment Tribunals have awarded large sums of compensation for victims of unwanted racial and sexual banter.

6. Take complaints of bullying and harassment seriously and treat individuals sympathetically.

7. Set clear objectives for the team and ensure each member has a role.

8. Where appropriate, keep people moving through roles in order to develop their skills and avoid cliques.

9. Celebrate the success of team diversity.