Multicultural Teams Communicating in Tandem: A Dream Come True or a Nightmare?

Diverse-Bus-Team-WEBAmericans often find communication difficult even with one another. Now add today’s global workforce in the mix and your dream of global expansion, enhanced diversity and collaboration may turn into a nightmare that paralyzes your team preventing collaboration and productivity. Poor communication can evolve from even the most mundane circumstances.

As one who works with multicultural clients, I often find them becoming stumped, demotivated and hesitant to interact and communicate at even the most basic levels. Some examples include a student from a Nordic country who was stuck on how to respond to, “Hello, How are you doing?” He froze at the thought of delivering a reply that might prove to be insulting to his American co-workers. Another executive thought it rude that not every one of his American co-workers looked up and acknowledged that he had entered the break room. In other words, in his country, even if you are engaged in a serious conversation, you stop, acknowledge the person entering the room, speak to them and then jump back your conversation. A Hispanic executive found it difficult to find a polite way to end a telephone conversation. A Japanese executive was horrified and embarrassed to find that she had been using the work “physical” for “fiscal’.

Educational or intelligence levels do not automatically guarantee that there will be no confusion. For example, I once worked with a Chinese financial analyst whose father was a doctor. She was educated in Great Britain and was highly intelligent. Yet still she struggled with our idioms, slang and wit. Most all of my clients wrestle, at some level, with the idea of climbing the corporate ladder, getting recognized for their efforts, office politics and even speaking up in meetings. Of course, these same concerns spill over into team work. What can been done to reduce these communication nightmares?


We all tend to make assumptions about other culture(s). One of my clients often starts a sentence with Americans do this, think that or say the other. Of course, we know that in no way are all Americans just alike. Nor is it the case with other cultures. There are Germans who have no concept of time schedules. There are Hispanics who are more punctual than some Americans. There are Japanese who like to look busy, but indeed are just lazy. There are Chinese who have a great sense of humor, yes even understanding American humor. Therefore, a good place to begin with understanding and better communication is to throw out dangerous assumptions.

Communication Styles and Behaviors

We are familiar with different communication styles and behaviors, generally speaking. For example, our often loud and casual communication and behavioral styles may send other cultures into, well, cultural shock. We all know that not all Americans are like the Looney Tunes cartoon character Foghorn. J. Leghorn. However, compared to the generally subdued behavioral style of the Japanese, we may appear that way. Every culture is likely to have individuals who communicate in a direct manner, an indirect manner, informally and formally. Understanding and adapting our own communication style may be essential in not losing a big deal that’s on the table. In conducting research for this article a scenario illustrating this point stands out. A female American executive found that a Korean-US project was not going smoothly. She fired off an email to her boss copying the Korean upper management team. The Koreans were highly offended and the deal was almost lost. Well, we don’t like it when people go over our heads either! So a little humanistic common sense might be in order in some cases.

Be Prepared

Many people dream but have difficulty remembering dreams when awakening. Psychologists suggest that by doing a bit of preparation before going to sleep by putting a pen and pad on the nightstand can help us to remember our dreams. We may wake up during or at the end of a dream and make some notes or immediately upon awakening, we can train ourselves to remember our dreams. Preparing multicultural teams to work in tandem is a similar and effective process.

Conducting face-to-face kick off meetings helps to prevent some nightmares. These meetings can prove helpful especially for virtual teams. Holding such meetings twice a year helps ensure a consistent level of success and tandem teamwork. Preparing people about specific issues can be addressed in such meetings. Advising those with heavy accents to say to a customer or colleague, “I’m aware that I speak with an accent and I may be difficult to understand at times, so please stop me and ask a question or ask me to repeat what I said.”

These meetings can also serve to establish ground rules, norms and values such as showing respect, tolerance and patience. Valuing trust, cultural diversity and honoring the contribution that each member brings are others. The team leader, albeit a CEO, manager, or team member who leads needs to establish the importance of the team handling conflict on its own. Having a team dependent on the leader’s intervention can prove disastrous and robs the leader of valuable time and productivity.

Providing cultural training programs can head off many potential disruptions. Having the team members, at the very least, participate in these trainings is essential. While the participants can cover cultural differences, individual behaviors and communication styles can be addressed as well. This provides a more complete understanding of the entire team and its own culture.

No team is perfect and every team will experience various levels of conflict from time to time for a myriad of reasons. Multicultural teams come with a built in potential for differences to surface and there are no one size fits all answers or solutions. After all remember, we are dealing with human nature – an ingredient even more unpredictable than the weather. On the other hand, taking the time to establish room for understanding, respect and common sense can go a long way to pave the road to collaboration, the richness that diversity brings, productivity, bring sweet dreams and help eliminate those multicultural nightmares that leave you screaming in the night.