How to Lead a Diverse Team

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In an increasingly multicultural world whereby diversity – rather than similarity – is the norm of many teams and organisations, understanding the professional significance of such diversity has never been so important as is today; and indeed, many have researched and written on the subject (myself included).

In this short article, I will illustrate what the leader of a newly formed culturally diverse team can do, in order to guide the formation of a healthy culture and lead the team towards its optimum potential.
To start, it helps to be clear on terminology;

 “Culture is the collective "conditioning" of a given group – be it a nation, a community, an institution or an organisation, etc. – which is different from that of other groups.”

"A culturally diverse environment is an environment whose members bring a multitude of diverse cultures and practices."

Therefore, diversity and cultural diversity mean the same thing. Since cultures are not exclusive to nations but are attributes of all groups. 

A number of implications arise when diverse teams are formed;

  • Within a diverse team there exists a pool of culturally arising skills that is wider than its homogeneous team equivalent.
  • Within a new diverse team, no working culture is yet established. Team members starts with no set of norms or guidance on how things should be done.
  • As compared to the homogeneous team, members of the diverse team are more open towards adapting to a working culture that differs from their own. They join the team with less hard written rules and expectations.

The new diverse team presents virgin grounds containing a wide variety of skills. Lacking mature leadership, at best the group will organically form a culture that reflects that of its more dominant and determined member(s), which is no guarantee of a suitable culture. At worst, they will fall into discord, bitterness and chaos.

On the other hand, guided by a culturally aware and mature leader, the group will form a culture that is suitable to achieving its purpose; resulting in a healthy, motivated, capable and highly efficient team.

Here is what you can do to aid this:
1. Choose culturally flexible members

Should you have the opportunity to choose the team members (which is not always the case), it merits nothing that:

  • People with cross-cultural experience are more flexible and capable of adapting to diversity. If you know of suitable candidates that have worked well with other culture, then you might want to allow them extra points. For example, your British based quality manager who works well and have good relationship with the Mexican and Chinese sites.
  • Those who work efficiently and harmoniously across different occupational cultures are also flexible and adaptable. For example, an engineer that successfully act as the prime interface between the design and the sales departments, have undoubtedly demonstrated an ability to work well with a different culture.

2. Be a champion of open communication

We know too well the merits of communication. We will note here its particular significance to culture formation within the diverse team.

As members start to work together and face new issues and challenges arising from their varying perspectives and ways of working, they will form opinions and conclusions. Each member will do so on the basis of his or her understanding of each arising situation, and that understanding – as is the understanding of most situations – is embedded in culture (be it national, regional, social, educational, professional, etc).

Therefore, the more diverse the team is, the more varying the perspectives and understandings of its members; and in turn, the more likelihood that conflict will arise.​​

This is where free communication that takes the form of open ‘dialogue’ aimed at understanding each-other’s perspectives and reaching an agreement on how best to proceed, becomes absolutely crucial to the survival of a healthy team. Lacking this form of communication, disharmony and discord will follow.

It is up to you as leader to create the climate that promotes such communication, and to coach and guide your team by encouraging feedbacks and analysis.

3. Start the team with ‘initiation’ training

That is, do so as soon as your team is formed, whereby you the leader are a participant and not the trainer. If it’s not possible to hold this training immediately, then it should be done at the closest opportunity afterwards. This first training needs to be highly interactive physical face-to-face and not virtual, if it is to be effective in planting the right culture.

The content should relate to the team’s objectives and not be culture training per se. You want the first elements of team culture to grow naturally – yet with your guidance – as team members interact for the first time, come to know each other and develop their communication processes.

Your team will be observing your behaviour and reactions for initial indications of what may be appropriate and what not; what may be desirable and what not.

You should be prepared beforehand on the kind of group culture you want. That is, the major elements of the culture that are fit-for-purpose given the team’s structure, tasks and objectives; and you need to behave accordingly…  

Lead By Example!

4. Hold regular ‘team dynamics’ reviews

Apart from reviewing the overall team progress, set aside a dedicated unrushed time for the team to review and analyse their interactions and dynamics as a group. Using open, non-personal and free from blame dialogue, each member in turn should have the opportunity to voice concerns. The team with the guidance of its leader, can then make suggestion and agree on the best ways to proceed, as well as new norms to adopt.

As team leader, it should be clear to you that the main aims of these sessions are:

  • Each team member comes to understand why others do things differently from themselves. They get to note each other’s perspective.
  • Different cultural styles will be open to group analysis and the setting of new norms where needed.

As the team evolve and face new situations, new issues will arise. It is therefore important to continue performing these sessions at regular basis. More frequently so in the team’s early days.

Why Culture?

What I can offer your organization

My new book

Simply because we define what is acceptable and what is not, what is desirable and what is not, what is appropriate and what is not on the basis of culture; and this has implications that go far beyond social pleasantries and etiquette, impacting every aspect of our life including work. read more...
Seminars  - becoming aware of cultural opportunities and threats 
Workshops  - learning to exploit opportunities and mitigate threats ​
Consultancy  - working together to put theory in practice; exploiting opportunities and mitigating threats ​

"this is probably one of the most accessible and practical books available, which defines and articulates cultural aspects from a pragmatic and embracing perspective."   read more...
Project Magazine, Association of Project Managers (APM)