Magazine article Strategic Finance

Leadership in a Multicultural Environment: Staying Aware of Cultural Differences and Setting a Tone of Recognition and Adaptation Are Leadership Essentials

Magazine article Strategic Finance

Leadership in a Multicultural Environment: Staying Aware of Cultural Differences and Setting a Tone of Recognition and Adaptation Are Leadership Essentials

Article excerpt

AN ORGANIZATION CONSISTING of people from the same cultural background no longer is the norm. Today you might find yourself working in the Middle East branch of a U.S.-based multinational company among employees who are mainly from South Asia and dealing with business partners based out of Europe and Australia. But the increased connection among countries and the globalization of corporations haven't resulted in the disappearance of cultural differences. On the contrary, cultural barriers often go up, presenting organizations with new challenges.

As the world gets smaller and as information technology and communications evolve, a manager must know how to lead a multicultural team. During the initial phase of my career as a controller, I was working for a German multinational company based in the Middle East and North Africa region. My team consisted of people from disparate areas of Asia and Eastern Europe, people with different cultural and educational backgrounds. I also worked with diverse business partners. The experience made me more adaptive to cultural shocks and changes.

If you are learning how to lead in a multicultural environment, here are a few tips:

1. Cultural gaps. Try to understand the cultural gaps across your team. For example, in some parts of the world it isn't advisable to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. In certain regions, it isn't advisable to eat or drink in public during certain times of the year. A leader or manager should learn to respect the local culture.

2. Language barriers. Though certain languages, such as English, are widely spoken, there could still be language barriers that hamper effective communication. While many nonnative English speakers may have studied English as part of their education curriculum, they still could find it difficult to communicate effectively in English. This calls for a manager or a leader to be a patient listener and speaker who ensures clarity and understanding.

3. Freedom from bias and prejudice. It should go without saying that a good manager and leader shouldn't show favoritism or distaste for a team because of the cultural background of its members. The focus should be on performance and results.

4. Adaptation to the local culture. A successful leader blends the universal principles of effective leadership with a multicultural mind-set. The result will have a positive impact on the organization as the leader becomes an integral part of the organizational process. Experts in international business agree that to succeed in global business, managers need the flexibility to respond positively and effectively to practices and values that may be drastically different from what they are accustomed to. This requires an ability to be open to the ideas and opinions of others.

5. Corporate vision. While team harmony and company morale may call for flexibility and require ongoing adaptation to accommodate different cultural backgrounds, it's imperative that the vision of the organization remain central. …

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