What it takes to lead multicultural teams


Today I want to write a short note about leadership in international teams as I get a lot of questions about what is important, what works and what not.

Well, one thing is for sure: leading teams composed of members from the whole world is certainly a lot of fun but also takes a lot of effort so that it can function in the right way, meaning that team members can realise their full potential and don’t feel threatened, not understood or unwell.

In a multicultural team it is very important that different opinions, views, understandings are always:

  • addressed,
  • explained and
  • understood.

By operating that way, you ensure that problems are discussed directly when they arise, so that no frictions – in the worst case leading to dysfunctional teams – can arise. What you are trying to do is to achieve the best possible synergies, not the adaptation of some individuals to the ideas and concepts of the others (this would create an asymmetric team dynamic) or even the resistance of some team members to the perceptions of the others which can lead to team members wanting to leave the team).

As all the team members are from different cultural backgrounds, they will all have different values and norms. By discussing these and finding synergies, you will create an atmosphere of convergence and trust, where all team members will make an effort to find a common ground of understanding. This in turn forms the basis on which you and your team can work together… and achieve your objectives, of course.

Don’t expect the basis you created to be there forever though! It has to be re-negotiated every time when a new issue arises as what is acceptable to one person doesn’t have to be acceptable for the other. A good and functioning international team relies on constant discussions, give and takes as well as on working out the synergies to balance the different opinions, ideas and strengths in your team. All the time!

Mindful listening, empathy and of course patience are the main ingredients that support the above mentioned processes. Being interculturally competent is a main skill nowadays which is required in nearly all workplaces (and even at home when two different nationalities decide to live together under one roof); without it, living and working in our present world becomes difficult.

What do you think?

Resources: Check out:

  • This blog for example, very interesting articles on Germans/Americans
  • This blog for great tools and articles about culture and intercultural competence




Addendum – About cultural types, European culture and intercultural competence

As an addendum to my last post on cultural types, European culture and intercultural competence I have at least to say a word about languages. With a smile I have to admit that thankfully nobody ever made me learn Esperanto[1]… what a funny thought that is: having one European common language. But: could a language really exist without having a cultural background? Interesting question indeed as in the common theories[2], language is determined by culture but culture also by language. It is true though that the more languages you speak the easier it gets when we speak about my particular domains of expertise at least which are communications, leadership and coaching. When being able to talk to your international team members in their language or to coach people in their language of origin, it truly makes a difference. Not only will you find that people open up easier but you are also not confronted to the barriers of communicating in a foreign language, as non-natives very often have difficulties to formulate their inner thoughts, worries or motivations in another language.

So, not only does a multicultural and multi-facet background give me access to intercultural skills but also the ability of speaking and thus being able to communicate in a variety of languages. This becomes very relevant when looking into emphatic listening[3] or mindful conversation[4] for example. If the ‘receiver’ of your message doesn’t understand what you actually mean and doesn’t ask (depending on the culture your interlocutor actually comes from, it might even be considered as rude to ask questions), the communication process will not function adequately resulting in misunderstandings and more.


If you now apply this to digital means of communication like e-mail and such where it is even harder to communicate what you want to say – as you only have words and the tone of these to express yourself – plus you communicate in a language which is not your main one, you can imagine how difficult transmitting any message gets. From my experience, I honestly have to say that most of the problems arising in multicultural leadership/working teams stem from misunderstandings or misinterpretations from what has been originally said or demanded. In such an environment it is thus of crucial importance to pay particular attention to the original culture, language and behaviors of people so that a common ground for discussion and exchange can be found! And: I don’t think that Esperanto would have solved these problems J

[1] Please see Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto for reading more about what Esperanto is!

[2] See for example this excellent article in the Wall Street Journal “Lost in translation”: http://tinyurl.com/2bmmtfd or this link on language and culture: http://tinyurl.com/9pt2ldz

[3] As explained in my blog entry on ‘the power of listening’ for example.

[4] According to Chade-Meng Tan, mindful conversation consits of three components : listening, looping and dipping. See his book “Search Inside Yourself” p. 60-62.