Skip to content
people diverse

Managing multicultural teams

Today the world has become a “global village” where people of different cultures and nationalities work together either in the same physical space or virtually through electronic communication. This is of course even truer of the logistics & shipping industry where several cultures are to be found on the same ship or in the same organization. With the worldwide shortage of skilled manpower, recruiting people with the right skills and knowledge is a major challenge. Hence the need to recruit widely and make the working environment as attractive as possible. Add to this the phenomenon of outsourcing. Teams today are often made up of various cultures, commonly working remotely.

It is therefore becoming even more important to understand the differences in values, beliefs, nuances and subtleties (the “soft” issues) between cultures, as well as practical issues such as language, religion, etiquette and diet (the “hard” issues).The approach of top management (which maybe from another different culture) has significant impact. We tend to view other cultures through the “filters” i.e. the rules and norms of our own culture, together with the added dimension of the corporate culture. This can lead to not only misunderstanding when interpreting other cultures’ behaviours but also impacts team effectiveness, motivation and communication.
Therefore it is important to have a strategy to build an effective cross cultural team rather than rely on a “laizze faire” approach or instinct, because instinct is fundamentally ethnocentric.

The foundation of any strategy has to be awareness of the ‘real’ differences in the various cultures in a team and their expectations. The questions that have to be answered are:

  • What are the different cultures in the team?
  • What is the relative status of the different cultures within the team?
  • What impact can leaders / management have on the effective working of a team – based on an understanding of their own cultural norms as well as those of the other cultures in the team?

At times companies may have up to five or more different cultures on board ship for example– each with their own mother tongue and their own cultural identities. So what challenges does this present to owners, managers and senior officers? How can they adapt so that they can manage, lead and communicate effectively with their staff?

Each culture brings its own deep-rooted cultural values and traits to a diverse team. These values and traits underpin how they approach their work, how they execute it and their interaction with superiors and colleagues. In short, they impact directly everything each individual does. For this reason alone, it is vital that management and staff understand these cultural differences and being able to adapt to them in a work environment.

Basically, cultural values can be split into two categories: there are the ‘hard’ issues, such as language, diet and religion – and there are the ‘soft’ issues, such as attitude to hierarchy, communication such as use of language and the willingness to challenge decisions as part of a group. The ‘hard’ issues are the most obvious and, in a way, the easiest to handle. An employee’s ability in any given language is easily assessed; diet can easily be catered for and in the example of aboard a ship a crew member’s religion can be respected. The ‘soft’ issues, on the other hand, are usually manifestations of cultural values that are ‘hidden’, operating at an unconscious level – ‘below the surface.’ However, they are even fundamental in influencing everyday behaviour and actions. Let’s look at some examples.

In some cultures, hierarchies can be very rigid; status is of paramount importance and there is an almost over-bearing formality in such relationships; authority is not questioned and orders are followed almost blindly. In other words, the 'boss' makes all the decisions and, although the individual has his/her role to play, he/she should not (and will not) step out of this. If he/she did, such behaviour would be interpreted as disrespectful – leading to a loss of face for both parties. The net result, of course, is that the individual does not feel empowered to make suggestions or use his initiative.

Part 2 of this blog will continue next month…

Laxmi Chaudhry (pictured right) is a Cross Cultural Consultant / Trainer, specialising in business effectiveness across international cultures (including remote working, outsourcing and joint ventures). She works with global organisations in many sectors including logistics and shipping. For more information contact Laxmi at [email protected] ; +44 (0)7793742767;

Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.