Diverse teams can be challenging and in today’s multicultural workplaces, managers need to know how to leverage differences to maximize performance outcomes. As MBA candidates at the Beedie School of Business, we have the benefit of practicing working in teams with students from all over the world. Here are some tips about how to navigate these complex situations from current MBA students from Canada, Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Iran, Jordan, Korea, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines, and the United Kingdom.
1. Cultivate genuine curiosity. Approach group situations with an open mind and learn as much as you can about your colleagues and their cultures early on. Observe people and how they interact with others. This information will help you to better navigate tricky interactions, and showing an interest in your teammates’ culture will strengthen the bond between you and them.
2. Learn how to listen. Really listen. Not to the sound of your own voice to get those coveted participation marks, but to the people who have come from all over the world who are sitting next to you. They have been selected for their experience and intelligence (just like you) and they have a lot to offer – if you are open to hearing what they have to say.
3. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions to clarify if you don’t understand. Check in frequently with your colleagues and make sure you are all on the same page.
4. Be aware of your own preferences. Take pride in and be an ambassador for your own culture while recognizing that your colleagues will inevitably be very different from you. Do not be so set in your ways that it affects your ability to collaborate effectively with your team.
5. Get Social! Get to know your classmates personally early in the program. Take the time to go out for a meal, a drink, or an activity with your group both before and at the end of a project. You can use these opportunities to build relationships and share information about work experience, interests, and career goals, which will bring you closer together and help you to understand how to leverage your team’s strengths.
6. Steer clear of cultural stereotypes. They can be destructive in a team environment if assumptions are left unchecked. As a team-building exercise, it can be fun to acknowledge some of the stereotypes that exist about your culture, share them with your colleagues and let them know if you think there is any truth to these oversimplified labels.
7. Be open-minded. Although differences may appear strange to you at first, do not be judgmental. Don’t focus on the strangeness or how uncomfortable it is; try to figure out why people are the way they are.
8. Set clear expectations. Be proactive and design a team charter or set of guidelines at the beginning of a group project. Assign roles and responsibilities and set clear timelines for deliverables. Agree on how decisions will be made. Are you aiming for consensus or will the majority rule? Get buy-in from everyone at the outset and establish a set of guidelines for communication, rules of engagement, and accountability to build a team culture that promotes success.
9. Acknowledge language barriers. It may take some people more time to formulate what they want to say. It is not because they are slow, but because communicating in a different language takes a lot of effort. If you are ever in doubt, challenge yourself to say what you need to say in a different language! You will never again confuse speed and frequency of contribution with intelligence.
10. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy could be your greatest weapon. If you are not seeing eye-to-eye, try to look at the situation from their perspective. What cultural baggage do you bring to the table? We all have biases and behaviours that can impede cross-cultural communication.
11. Be flexible. You will come up against tough situations; be willing to compromise and think carefully before you decide to dig your heels in. If you are working in a new culture, consider how you might adapt to accommodate the norms of the people and place. This can be a valuable skill as you progress in your career.
12. Be patient. Some people take longer to share their ideas and it is in your collective best interest to hear them out. Quiet people have valuable things to say – people like Mahatma Gandhi, Albert Einstein and Rosa Parks need to be heard.
13. Use humor carefully. Laughs may lighten the mood, but it can be challenging to find the right joke that everyone on your team can understand. You run the risk of alienating people who aren’t in on the gag.
14. Be enthusiastic. One person’s interest and excitement about a topic can be infectious and it will stimulate and motivate the whole team.
15. Learn to love feedback. Discuss during the initial group meeting how feedback will be provided. Establish a safe and respectful environment where people will be open to learning from the collective experience. Have a plan for how you are going to communicate with each other when you are faced with the inevitable difficult conversations.
Meaghan Williams is a full-time MBA student with a background in the performing arts. A double bass player and a graduate of the prestigious Universität der Künste in Berlin, Germany, Meaghan has worked with orchestras on three continents. She is a Partner at OOMPH! Consulting. Outside of work and school Meaghan can be found practicing yoga, running, cycling, hiking, backcountry skiing and improving her culinary skills. Connect with Meaghan on LinkedIn.