If you have ever been part of a multicultural work team, you might have experienced the excitement of rapid-fire ideas or the frustration of misunderstandings. Such teams can truly benefit from the variety of perspectives brought in as a result of the different backgrounds and experiences of members. Multicultural teams also face challenges that less diverse teams won't encounter. If English is the language of choice and not all members are fluent, efforts to move forward can be stalled. Cultural differences can also result in misunderstandings or communication failures. Exchanging information and ideas can become frustrating as members try individually to figure out exactly what is being said or suggested. Effort should be taken to bridge these gaps early, and the issues might need to be revisited later.
Setting Team Norms
When any team is first brought together, members need some time to adjust to one another's work and communication habits. In a multicultural environment, this adjustment can include seemingly innocuous things, like whether or not subordinates are allowed to or expected to speak directly with superiors. Leaders should take some time to establish team norms. The use of colloquialisms that have meanings unique to a local region should be avoided. Slang terms should also be eliminated from workplace communications. Even if all team members are fluent in English, colloquialism and slang words do not have the same meanings to all English speakers.
Team norms might need to be recalibrated periodically as more gaps are recognized. Lack of language fluency can build stress over time. Team members for whom English is a second language, or ESL, must expend as much or more cognitive effort on understanding as they do on the task at hand. Their constant attempts to decipher verbal and written communications can prevent work from getting done as quickly or effectively as it should, and this can also cause colleagues to perceive them to be incompetent. The frustration that results over time can create an atmosphere of distrust.
If a team member is keeping silent, effort should be given to determine why. This effort is not entirely the responsibility of management. Peers might actually have greater success figuring out the problem. In some cultures, people are accustomed to working within hierarchical communication channels, whereas other cultures might attribute less importance to status or titles. Team members with a hierarchical mindset might only talk to peers. At a management level, this can prevent sharing of information with staff. At a staff level, this can prevent management from fully understanding the needs of the team.
All employees in multicultural environments should invest some social capital in understanding the work and communication styles of their colleagues and leaders. Frustration can occur when some nuances become recognized, such as perceptions of gender roles or hierarchies; but investing time to help team members adjust to newer, local expectations will build goodwill and help to make the adjustment successful. When you see ESL team members make communication errors, provide helpful feedback. Pay attention to not only what is being said, but how it is being said, and don't jump to conclusions. You need to decipher the messages that team members are sending just as much as they need to decipher yours.
A careers content writer, Debra Kraft is a former English teacher whose 25-plus year corporate career includes training and mentoring. She holds a senior management position with a global automotive supplier and is a senior member of the American Society for Quality. Her areas of expertise include quality auditing, corporate compliance, Lean, ERP and IT business analysis.