May 28, 2024
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Opinion: The rewards and challenges of a truly multicultural workforce


By Michael O’Brien Browne

We on the Central Coast of California are gifted with a rich pool of diverse multicultural and multiethnic talents to drive our businesses, from Latinos to Thais, Middle Easterners to Europeans, Native Americans, Chinese, Indians, Africans, Ukrainians, Armenians, Russians, Philippinos, Pacific Islanders and a vast array of others across all cultures, genders, age groups and creeds. This is a gleaming treasure of innovation and creativity.

Research conducted by, among others, Dr. Martha Maznevski, professor of organizational behavior at the Ivey Business School in Ontario, Canada, has shown that effectively managed diverse teams out-perform all others. Diverse teams make good business sense — when well managed.

There are many unique challenges and rewards to working in or leading multicultural teams. To achieve high performance, leaders and team members are faced with several large but not insurmountable obstacles.

Complicating matters are different team member functions and job roles and the fact that members may be located in different states, regions, countries and time zones.

Although we are all Californians, this does not mean that we all possess the exact same mindset, upbringings, values and communication styles. Modern leaders have to command an enormous amount of intercultural sensitivity, empathy, management skills and their own specific industry know-how in order to inspire and motivate multicultural teams so that they perform at the highest standards — for the benefit of all. As a leader or member of a cross-cultural company or team, many important factors have to be recognized and worked with in order to promote team effectiveness, individual contentment and business success.

Key factors include:

• Direct versus indirect language: How is “no!” expressed in your company? Or for some employees, does “yes” mean “no”? Many team members may never say “no” to their boss out of respect and a wish to avoid losing face. Is “no!” a clear direct answer or a door-closer to clients and employees? How do you and your people “read” non-verbal signals?

• The use of humor: Humor is perhaps our greatest balm in difficult times. But how is it used and received in your team or company? As a gentle jest, a witticism or cutting sarcasm? Does it bind the team together or hurt your people? Does the use of humor mean you do not take serious matters seriously or that seemingly serious matters are best handled with an elegant touch of wit and charm to remove its sting?

• How criticism and praise are given and accepted: Feedback can be destructive or constructive. Destructive feedback is direct and often personal. Its goal is to improve performance and quality through direct language but it may result in stifling creativity and innovation and demotivating employees. Constructive feedback, on the other hand, seeks to encourage employees to share fresh ideas and insights. It is never personalized and is solution oriented, not problem oriented.

• Concepts of time and urgency: Across mindsets and cultures, there is a wide scope of the meaning and value of time. What is “time” to a person with Northern European roots, or a Latino or a Pakistani or a Southern European? Is time linear or circular? Does time even exist? What is the meaning of a “deadline?” When do you attend a 9 a.m. meeting — at 8:45 a.m., 9 a.m. or 9:15 a.m.? Do you attend with a well-prepared PowerPoint presentation or with coffee and doughnuts? Concepts of time are deeply rooted in our cultural perspectives and how we perceive time is a great cause of tension and misunderstandings in multicultural teams.

California’s greatest asset is its deep multicultural heritage. This is our source of strength, resilience, agility and innovation. The task of successfully leading or participating in multicultural companies and teams is complex and demanding. But the personal and professional rewards are significant. Well-led diverse teams directly translate into increased creativity, enhanced communication and greater profits for companies.

More than this, with its broad multicultural workforce, California is leading the future. This makes powerful business sense to startups, mid-sized companies and major corporations as they seize and utilize the mighty competitive advantage of diversity.

• Michael O’Brien Browne is CEO of Open Mind Open Markets, a management and team development company. He also teaches strategic management at the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.