How to Adapt Your Leadership Style for Multicultural Teams

How to Adapt Your Leadership Style for Multicultural Teams

As a business leader, you know that the quality of your team is a significant influence on your success. One of the most important things you can do is build and support a workforce of multicultural contributors.


By having diversity in nationality, generations, identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds — among other demographics — you can reap significant benefits. There’s the opportunity to gain from different perspectives that boost the company, enrich colleagues, and potentially spur innovation.


Yet, it’s vital to recognize that multicultural teams don’t succeed simply by existing. They need leaders with skills, insights, and strategies that are relevant for guiding workers from multiple demographics. As a result, when cultivating your diverse team, you may need to adapt your leadership style to better suit your workforce. Let’s explore some of the elements you can focus on.


  1. Understanding Differences
  2. Adapting Communication Approaches
  3. Fostering Inclusivity
  4. Supporting Remote Collaborations 



Understanding Differences


Having a good understanding of how cultural differences fit into and impact the workplace is key to being a great leader. After all, without accurate insights, there’s the potential for missteps, mistakes, and misunderstandings.


Taking the time to research the cultures of your different team members and identify how you can best adapt to their nuanced backgrounds and needs can make you a more agile and effective leader.


A quite useful resource for this is Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions Theory. This is effectively a framework that highlights the attitudes, values, and priorities people from different countries and cultures have in the workplace. Looking at the common attributes related to your team members’ backgrounds can inform how you can better adapt your leadership style. 


For instance, Hofstede’s examination of the power distance index relates to how workers of different backgrounds respond to the distribution of power in the organization. People from cultures with a low power distance score are often less likely to thrive in rigid top-down hierarchies, preferring a more democratic and consultative approach to leadership.


The uncertainty avoidance index can be another cultural dimension worth exploring. This highlights each culture’s tolerance for uncertainty. Some cultures can feel more anxious or threatened by change than others, requiring leaders to provide elements of certainty to help them feel more comfortable and confident. Cultures with low avoidance index scores, on the other hand, may be more open to leaders who are willing to take risks that could have positive outcomes.


Remember, though, to use this type of data mindfully. Don’t base your entire adjustment approach on this theory alone, as you run the risk of making decisions related to stereotypes. Indeed, some elements of the Hofstede theory may be less relevant today than they used to be.


For instance, Hofstede’s femininity versus masculinity index outlines how different cultures apply traditional gender characteristics in the workplace and leadership. The significant recent positive shifts away from rigid gender norms may make Hofstede's findings here less useful. Rather, it is better to use Cultural Dimensions Theory as a launching platform for further exploration and research.


In addition to researching cultural workplace characteristics, it’s essential to be directly informed by your team members themselves. Some may not fall into the Hofstede indexes and other studies easily or they may have been influenced by living in different spaces and working alongside various cultures. 


Make it a point to talk to your employees about their cultures and how they feel it impacts their viewpoints and preferences. Discuss the challenges they face in the workplace, too. This not only gives you information for influencing your leadership style, but also demonstrates a commitment to cultural awareness and care. 


Adapting Communication Approaches


Communication is essential for all teams. In multicultural teams, there can be additional hurdles to good comms. This isn’t just about language barriers, though that can certainly be present in international workforces. There is also a range of interaction nuances that, as a leader, you need to adapt your processes to, empowering your team to connect with one another and thrive.


A good place to start is to adopt some basic best practices that boost communication efficiency. These include:


Prioritizing face-to-face 


Emails and messaging platforms may well be convenient, but they’re not always effective for positive communication among multicultural teams. Face-to-face discussions don’t tend to have as much room for misinterpretation and uncertainty. After all, you can couple your words with nuances of body language and tone that aren't present in text alone. Personal contact also helps build trust and provide clarity to workers.



Using visuals as well as text 


Clear visual elements in addition to text can be useful for overcoming linguistic and cultural barriers. For instance, providing a flow diagram rather than just a spoken or typed explanation can help workers see clearly how actions fit together, even if they don’t fully understand all your words. Demonstrating through actions, too, can support their comprehension of how to approach tasks. 



Promoting simplicity 


Workplaces can be subject to complex forms of communication that native speakers often don’t think about. Industry jargon, casual slang, and metaphor frequently pepper conversations. Unfortunately, these can add layers of confusion among multicultural teams.


Therefore, as a leader, you should promote simplicity in communication. Your interactions can still be friendly and even fun, but try to provide information in the shortest and clearest way possible.


Another vital consideration when adapting your leadership communication with multicultural teams is your non-verbal cues. The meaning and interpretation of these can certainly differ depending on background.


For instance, the importance of maintaining personal space can vary between cultures and even eye contact can send nuanced messages. Be mindful of how you’re behaving depending on who you’re interacting with to demonstrate your cultural sensitivity. 


Fostering Inclusivity


Adapting your leadership style for multicultural teams isn’t just about addressing the practical issues. It’s also about ensuring that your team is a welcoming and positive group for people of all cultures to work in. By being intentional in your efforts to foster inclusivity, you can enhance the team’s impact, boost workplace satisfaction, and bolster engagement.


Some of the ways you can do this include:



Talk about inclusivity openly 


Too often, inclusivity is something that’s strategized behind closed doors. It’s almost as if leaders are embarrassed about past oversights and feel they need to privately plan when making changes. Instead, it’s vital to make it clear to all workers that inclusivity is a cultural priority in your team. Invite workers to raise issues or concerns related to inclusivity and involve everyone in making solid improvements. It’s the most efficient and positive way forward.



Ensure fair access to resources 


Workers from different cultural backgrounds may require alternative resources to ensure they can perform effectively. For instance, those from older generations who may be unfamiliar with newer tech tools may require additional training to perform at the same level as digital natives. Remote workers from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may require funding to get reliable internet access. Talk to your workers about what resources they may need to help them feel fully included.



Encourage the team to learn about one another 


Your team is unlikely to feel particularly aligned if they don’t have solid relationships with one another. Provide opportunities for people of different cultures to gain a better understanding and appreciation of their varying backgrounds. This might include pairing colleagues less familiar with each other for project collaborations. It can also involve celebrating national, cultural, or religious holidays that workers find meaningful.


Often, the key to fostering team inclusivity is ensuring that everyone’s cultural and social identities are seen, respected, and validated. This will include taking approaches to your leadership that are not always pleasant, but necessary.


For instance, you’ll need to maintain strict disciplinary procedures related to not just outright discrimination but also consistent microaggressions. Nevertheless, your commitment to being a facilitator of socio-cultural togetherness helps to make a stronger and more successful team. 


Supporting Remote Collaborations


There’s a great deal of debate at the moment about whether the most effective teams are those that interact purely in person. Yet, remote operations can be a great way to ensure your team is as multicultural as possible.


This isn’t just because you can access truly global talent pools. But it also boosts accessibility for those who live with mobility challenges or whose socioeconomic circumstances mean they can’t live near your offices.


This doesn’t just mean you need to adapt your leadership approach to be willing to hire employees working from home. Moreover, you need to actively put measures in place to support collaborations between remote team members. Your strategy for this should involve setting up virtual team-building activities, such as game nights, to build camaraderie across geographical boundaries. 


It’s also vital to set clear remote meeting rules to ensure every team member gets their opinions and ideas heard during projects. Demonstrating empathy about the difficulties of remote work — from communication hurdles to the isolation of working alone — is also essential to enhancing connectivity between you and your team.


Additionally, aim to put resources in place for a geographically distributed workforce to interact seamlessly. Collaborative software tools can be a good focus for investment here.


For instance, virtual whiteboards ensure all team members can participate in ideation sessions, even asynchronously for those in different time zones. Remote communication platforms, like Slack and Zulip, can also encourage constant communication — even casual chatting — which boosts togetherness.





Effectively leading a multicultural team can benefit from adaptation in various key areas. These include committing to a better understanding of how different cultures function in the workplace, alongside practical improvements such as communication techniques and collaboration tools.


Above all else, be open to learning from your multicultural employees. By following their lead on cultural nuances, needs, and changes, you can both enhance your success and develop your leadership skills.

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