How to Stop Worrying and Manage a Multicultural Team

How to Stop Worrying and Manage a Multicultural Team

Maria Magdaleena Lamp
min read


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So you’ve decided to expand your talent pool and build a multicultural team. Good call!

But now you’re dreading culture clashes and corporate chaos? You’re definitely not alone in this. The upsides of building a cross-cultural team are well-documented and numerous, so we won’t go over them again here. But it would be disingenuous to say it doesn’t present leaders and HR teams with a whole bunch of interesting problems... No, we mean opportunities!

If you’re losing sleep over making your culturally diverse team work together smoothly, you’re probably thinking of things like language barriers, misunderstandings, clashing working styles, and the extra effort it takes to smooth out all these potential bumps.

(And if you weren’t worried about these things before, you probably are now! In which case—sorry. Just keep reading to unworry yourself.)

The excellent news is that although it does take extra effort to create a healthy multicultural work environment, most of it is work you should be doing anyway to maintain a robust company culture.

But first, let’s take a small step back:

Make good hires

To get this whole multicultural thing off to a healthy start, it has to begin with the people you’re hiring. You’ll need a lot of adaptability and openness on your team, across the board. There’s no room for people who must have things their way at all times.

This absolutely doesn’t mean you should hire an army of mindless minions who will do whatever you say. It’s very much the opposite of that. You’re looking for people who can and do speak their minds and are also genuinely, enthusiastically open to new ways of doing things. And of course, they need to be excited about working as part of a multicultural team.

And if you’re in the habit of hiring brilliant jerks—high performers with toxic attitudes—keep in mind their teamwork-eroding potential and think about whether that’s a tradeoff you’re happy to make.

Share your experiences

To work together as a unit, you need to get your whole team on the same page about your differences.

In the experience of Alexandra Lindblom, People Specialist at Malwarebytes, it is crucial to create a workplace where everyone has access to the diverse knowledge of their teams. “The easiest way is to run workshops where your people talk about where they come from and what their traditions are,” Alexandra says. “Most importantly, people have to be open to other cultures and learn to accept them.”

By creating this open flow of information, you will almost certainly discover methods, perspectives, philosophies, and ways of communicating that you’ve never thought of before.

And you can squash issues before they even emerge. Karoli Hindriks, Jobbatical founder and CEO, recalls an incident from the early days of the company: “We were all very unhappy, all 12 different nationalities of us at Jobbatical, about the US election results of 2016. Two days after Trump was elected, we all got an email from an American team member who was disappointed with the team’s lack of support for our American colleagues in this difficult time.”

There were no bad intentions on either side. Everyone else was just as shocked and appalled as the Americans by an event that went so strongly against what the company stood for—a borderless world where people and ideas could move freely. There was just no common idea of how to respond to it.

Oh yes, it’s a bit much to ask an employer for a step-by-step playbook for oddly specific events like unfavorable election results. But by simply acknowledging that people have different expectations and needs in such situations, you’re already setting the stage for open communication that will minimize cultural mishaps like this.

Don’t be afraid to overcommunicate

Speaking of communication—this is the thread that weaves everything (and everyone) together. Kätlin Lepp, HR Manager at Fortumo, leaves no room for doubt when she says communication is key. “To get the absolute maximum out of diversity, there has to be clear communication and trust,” she says. “People want to be heard, feel safe and trusted, regardless of nationality. So, communicate, communicate, and overcommunicate! With the right mindset, having a multinational team only has advantages.”

How to keep cross-cultural communication crystal clear:

  • Sync early and often to avoid misunderstandings and unfounded assumptions. Whenever you start a project, don’t assume everyone will telepathically stay on the same page throughout.
  • Use clear and concise language. When you’re dealing with people at varying levels of English proficiency, you need to mind what you say and how you say it. Flowery language kills meaning.
  • Grammar and spelling don’t always need to be perfect—that would be an irrational demand in day-to-day workplace communication. But when in doubt, keep your grammatical constructions as simple and unambiguous as possible.
  • Be careful with jokes. Humor in the workplace can be an excellent team bonding tool, so don’t build a team of humorless drones. Just remember that not all humor translates well.
  • Double-check if you’re expressing yourself clearly. Ask and encourage follow-up questions.
  • Repeat things back to people in different words to confirm you understand what they’re saying.
  • Close communication loops. Don’t leave things hanging in the air and make sure there’s always a resolution, next step, or deadline.

Leave assumptions and stereotypes at the door

Assumptions are the sworn enemies of good workplace communication. It’s particularly easy to make assumptions about other cultures, because the world is rife with deeply ingrained stereotypes. And while our rational brains might know that stereotypes are harmful and often just straight-up stupid, it can be tough to let go of them.

But it can be done.

  • Cultural differences can and do strongly influence the way people do business. Take this into account and read up on decoding cultures: Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map is a great place to start.
  • This does not mean that every person will be a perfect reflection of what you imagine their culture to be like. Be aware of cultural differences while embracing and accepting individuals.
  • Keep in mind that many people are the product of more than one culture. Third-culture kids, experienced travelers and digital nomads—today’s mobile workforce was forged in the fires of a changing, shifting world where national identities are becoming more nebulous with each day.

Write. Things. Down.

When you’re building a company culture that needs to function cross-culturally, you’re—pardon the tired metaphor, but it works—solving a puzzle. You probably know the frustration of trying to figure out an impossible one: Some of the pieces look like they’re from a completely different puzzle. And there never seem to be enough edge pieces.

But for all of the above to work in a sustainable way, you need to squeeze all your beautiful sharing and clear communication into an actual framework.

So find those edge pieces first. That is to say, identify the values and principles that drive your team. The stuff you have in common. Then build upon that to get more specific about the way you work and communicate.

Because your culture isn’t going to maintain itself. Especially if it exists only in the heads of your management team or HR. And not all policies and guidelines are necessarily going to feel intuitive to everyone.

So write them down. Make them a meaningful part of your day-to-day.

How to make it count:

  • Have actionable and specific values and guidelines that people can refer to in moments of doubt.
  • Plug these values and house rules into your onboarding process for both local and international hires. For more on expat onboarding and retention, read all about How to Engage and Retain Expat Employees.
  • Don’t let your values and policies gather dust in a dark corner of your Google Drive. Someone on your team needs to champion and own them with relentless enthusiasm.
  • Stick to your own rules. To have any meaning, the rules must apply to everyone equally.
  • Point out and reward behavior that reinforces your culture of inclusion and openness.
  • Call out behavior that works against it. (It’s up to you to determine what “calling out” means in this context, but we’re fans of direct feedback over public shaming.)
  • Accept that your values and ways of working aren’t set in stone. Be open to feedback and discussion.

Best-case scenario, if your team is small enough, you can probably afford to get everyone involved in company culture discussions to some degree. Give your people a voice. This is what levels you up from “diversity” to “diversity and inclusion”—the real superpower.

So here’s the thing. To communicate effectively between cultures, you need to take the leap and start communicating between cultures.

It’s one thing reading books and articles about managing multicultural teams. And it doesn’t hurt—heck, that’s why we wrote this one!

But theory will only get you so far.

So jump in. Make mistakes. Start building that glorious Franken-culture that is so uniquely yours. Learning what not to do is part of the process. Now that you’re well-prepared and equipped with a top-shelf attitude, those mistakes will be no more than happy accidents that make your team stronger each day.

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