Do we motivate multicultural teams the same way we motivate teams with members all from the same culture?
Multicultural teams are everywhere, from multinationals to small companies, people from diverse cultural backgrounds physically situated in the same premises, or virtual teams across different time zones. But if people in multicultural teams lack motivation, things can get rough.
How is a multicultural team different?
Multicultural teams differ from same-culture teams in the following respects:
- Team members from different cultures have different communication styles, working methods, decision-making practices, and ways of measuring success.
- People see differently how national culture affects their own work behavior.
- The expectations of team behavior vary among national or ethnic cultures.
Special challenges of multicultural teams
A 2002 study by Jackson, Mannix, Peterson, and Trochim found same-culture teams faced personality and communication conflicts, differences of opinion about work, difficulties in deciding on a work method or approach, issues with timing and scheduling, and problems with contribution and workload distribution.
Multicultural teams also face the following additional challenges:
- Defining how national, ethnic, organizational, and familial cultures affect team interaction.
- Establishing a shared communication method.
- Understanding and discussing what motivates team members.
- Accepting a commonly agreed upon approach of dealing with challenges and handling crises.
- Having a shared vision of leadership, management, and way of measuring success in the team, in the organization.
- Ways of changing attitudes.
- Gaining trust.
Multicultural teams might function smoothly in good times. People are jovial and flexible. But, in a crisis, people may revert to typical defensive behavior from their own upbringing and team working suffers.
If team members get a perspective of how communication methods differ from linear to circular, from direct to indirect, from low-context to high-context, from task-focused to relationship-focused models, they would better understand other team members and communicate successfully. Further, team members should agree on a shared communication method for their particular needs. Teams, which have agreed upon communication methods, usually handle crises better.
How to understand people from other cultures
If team members never discuss what motivates them, as individuals and as representatives of their own culture, they may misread the other team members' motives.
Why do we actually need to understand people from other cultures? How should we behave with them? Do we need to learn elaborate bowing rituals and eat Sushi everyday with Japanese team members? If the Japanese or the Finns sit quietly during presentations, should everyone else do so?
Earn respect, but never fake it
A total mastery of another culture is difficult, as we cannot even master all the norms in our own. But the attitude towards other cultures is crucial. When you learn the logic behind behavioral norms, you understand the conditions that have created the cultural mindset. If people notice the respect you have for their culture, they will forgive you blunders you might make.
If you constantly use phrases such as "I respect your culture!" or "Ah! I have the utmost respect for Chinese culture!" while behaving insensitively, people consider you a fraud.
Trust is vital in a multicultural team
Gaining trust is vital for the effective functioning of any team. People try to gain trust through status, wealth, educational qualifications, social position, etc. Personal examples of trustworthy behavior such as honesty and dependability as well as knowledge, good communication skills, extraordinary performance on the job, superior skills, experience, and long-term perspective of the industry also create trust.
All teams go through different stages of evolution. Multicultural teams should pay more attention to the initial forming stage, where they begin to build working relationships. If team members don't bother to become familiar in the forming stage, assumptions, very difficult to unlearn later, start guiding behavior.
Strategies for motivating multicultural team members
As a motivating factor, money is important, but only to some extent. After they start getting a fairly decent level of compensation for their input, money stops being the greatest motivator for most people.
Motivating factors more important than money are:
- Recognition among peers for achievement.
- Recognition outside immediate work environment.
- Opportunities for continuous learning.
- Involvement in crucial decision-making.
- Suitable challenges move people occasionally outside their comfort zones.
Knowing the strengths, weaknesses, and performance history of each team member is necessary for mapping what they are capable of achieving and then creating strategies to make that happen. That every team member must feel a manifest desire to see each team member as successfully reaching his/her full potential in a unique way is a guiding principle and not just empty talk.
Opportunities for recognition among peers also exist outside the immediate work environment in professional bodies, seminars, among clients, or through the company magazine.
Training, e.g. multicultural awareness, teambuilding, and intercultural management workshops, motivate multicultural team members, but they must know why they are being trained.
Team members need to see how they fit into the big picture. If it becomes clear to members that by stretching themselves they are bringing more into play than just being saddled with responsibility from above, they improve and begin to shine.
Challenge people suitably
If people are too enmeshed in their comfort zones, they become complacent and performance decreases. But move people away from their comfort zones only with a clear purpose. If team members don't know this purpose, they start speculating and this becomes counterproductive. They need a vision of what they can achieve with feedback to allay fears.
The cause of fear can be paradoxical. Nelson Mandela, who managed to transform himself and affect the destiny of an entire nation spoke of this paradoxical nature of the cause of fear. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?"
Positive affirmation is stronger in motivating people than negative threats. No matter how many challenges you are facing, celebrate your working together!
Jackson, K., E. Mannix, R. Peterson, W. Trochim (2002, June). A multifaceted approach to process conflict. Paper presented at the International Association for Conflict Management, Salt Lake City, UT.
Rana Sinha is a cross-cultural consultant and author who has studied and lived in many places and traveled in more than 85 countries. Of Indian-Finnish parentage, he has spent years developing and delivering cross-cultural training, professional communications skills, personal development, and management solutions to organizations and businesses internationally. He now runs www.dot-connect.com, which specializes in human resource development with a cross-cultural emphasis.