Managing People in Intercultural Teams

One of the biggest challenges faced by many businesses, social and commercial alike, is how to successfully manage employees from different cultural backgrounds. Management studies have focused mostly on managing people from similar age groups and the same ethnic and cultural backgrounds, but with the growing number of international companies and longer work lives, those studies seem outdated. Managers are increasingly faced with three or four generations working together; even the smallest social businesses often boast employees from different countries. That is especially true for the United Arab Emirates, home to over 200 nationalities and almost as many different languages.

Social enterprises are usually started by entrepreneurs who are passionate about a certain cause or a certain area, but that does not necessarily mean they themselves are from that area or that they understand the cultural implications of doing business in that certain way. Many managers go about that problem by hiring people from the local communities, an approach that has its merits, but does not solve the main issue: how do you work with people who are inherently different from you? We have worked with an enterprise that provides Indian women with access to sanitary pads – started by an American white male – and early childhood education providers in East Africa ran by European management. These companies are extremely successful, not in spite of the differences among their staff, but because of them. They have managed to leverage the different points of view and even different sets of values to enrich the work culture of the organization. A lot of times that means one simple thing (and yet, so many managers seem incapable of that particular thing): listening instead of imposing, learning instead of directing.

Good managers know where their own shortcomings are and great managers know how to build teams that fill those gaps. That means hiring people that understand your target market and creating a business that is culturally sensitive and relevant. The internal culture of a social business is directly reflected on the brand image and, ultimately, on the business results themselves. In practical terms, that means creating a safe space in which employees can freely express their personal values and bring different ideas to the table, as well as having clear guidelines on what happens when an employee is disrespectful to fellow employees based on their culture, religion, race, age or gender.

The cultural abundance that comes from working in international teams should be seen as a competitive advantage for the company and an added value for the employees; an opportunity to learn and grow, both on a professional and on a personal level. The business world is becoming more and more integrated in every sense, so instead of focusing on what makes us different and seeing it as an impediment to growth, managers need to focus on what makes us similar and bridge the gaps through dialogue and an atmosphere of respect and openness.

Tena is a social impact consultant passionate about applying her skills to help start ups in the developing world. She is the co-founder of The Sustainability Platform, Head of Media at C3-Consult and Coach for a Cause and Dubai+Acumen chapter leader. She also holds various workshops on the theory of change and social business basics. Tena’s main interests include women empowerment, economic inclusion and community development, as well as social impact measurement. She is an international board member of two South Asian NGOs and core team member of Social Enterprise Week, an annual social enterprise conference held in Dubai.

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