Cross-Cultural Management or Managing Multicultural Teams

What is it; A Definition

There are many ways of defining what a multicultural team is. Having checked Wikipedia, I couldn’t find much for a definition. So I’ll come up with my own 😉

I would consider three ways of phrasing the same thing:

  1. Cross-Cultural Management
  2. Managing Multicultural Teams
  3. Global Management

They all border or huddle around the same thing: having people with different cultural backgrounds and upbringing work harmoniously and effectively in one location. What I mean with a multicultural team is a team that works in one location. Of course, within one organization you can have different locations across the globe where people with different cultural backgrounds work. It is there where Global Management comes in.

Working with Different Cultures is Not Easy

In a survey done some time back (in fact this kind of survey has been done many times over) the same thing comes up time and again: Managing people from different cultures is not easy. Cross-cultural management is hard. A lot harder than people think from the start.

Below is an overview of a management survey done by Price Waterhouse Cooper:

Challenges US and European senior executives say they face when managing across different countries

  • Changing individual behavior  69 %
  • Cultural differences  65 %
  • Business practice differences  52 %
  • Headquarters too remote  44 %
  • Labour law differences  41 %
  • Accounting and tax differences  36 %

As you can see managing multicultural teams ranks second. Hopefully not surprisingly.

The Benefits and Pitfallsmanaging multicultural teams pitfalls

Let’s start with the negative pitfalls first. In my 20 year experience, most people that have a global management position tend to focus on the so-called “hard variables“: Accounting, rules, regulations and things like that. The saying goes that “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast“. In other words only focusing on systems, tools and rules will in the end not lead to a successful cross-cultural management operation. People will find workarounds to beat the system.

Now let’s look at the benefits. There are plenty of organizations, like Google, Apple (and smaller too) that have mastered the way to work successfully by managing multicultural teams well. What do they get in return for this?

When managed well, diverse teams (compared to homogeneous teams):

  1. Are more creative
  2. Generate more and better alternatives
  3. Generate more and better criteria for evaluation
  4. Perform better on complex decision-making tasks


How to Beat the Competition?

If you do work for an organization that works internationally and you value global management or you are managing multicultural teams there is really no way around this:

Your team has to become culturally competent

Cross-cultural management involves taking the responsibility as a manager to make sure your people understand not only the others but also themselves. Telling people to simply work together won’t work.

Often perceptions of each other have been shaped and set and when that has happened it is very hard to offset that.

However, if you provide people a framework within which they can place their stereotypes, their perceptions, and their frustrations, you can slowly peel away at the layers of misconception that often have been around teams that don’t really understand each other.

So if you want to beat your competition pay attention to cross-cultural management when you’re managing multicultural teams. Engage in global management and invest in yourself and in your people.

Want to Learn More?

If you want to learn more, below are three links to podcasts that I have recorded earlier that will help you better understanding this topic.

Chris Smit

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