How to manage a multicultural workplace

Apr 01, 2019

5 mins

How to manage a multicultural workplace

With 59 employees and 21 nationalities, the company Superprof is a leader in cultural diversity. Coworkers from Brazil, Argentina, India, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Spain, France, and Germany cross paths every day in the company’s offices. Specializing in connecting teachers with students for courses online or in person, Superprof operates in 23 countries. Its cultural diversity is both enriching and challenging for managers, who work to create daily cohesion.

Cultural Diversity According to Geert Hofstede

As more companies expand internationally, managing different cultures in the workplace has become a widespread issue. Managers must contend with their employees’ varying notions of time, authority, hierarchy, and work in general. In the 1970s, the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede became interested in the subject and developed a method for identifying cultural differences at work.

Between 1967 and 1973, he conducted a study of the multinational American company IBM, using data gathered from more than 70 countries. By analyzing questionnaires given to all company employees, Hofstede defined five dimensions that define a culture and have an impact on a company’s management style and organization, as follows.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

This dimension measures the degree to which individuals are integrated within a group. Individualist societies (such as the United States, France, Australia, and Great Britain) prioritize personal objectives, while collectivist societies (such as Arabic and developing countries) value the goals and the wellbeing of the whole group.

Masculinity vs. Femininity

This measures a society’s view of “masculine” values—competition, ambition, power, and materialism —versus “feminine” values, such as relationship quality, harmony, and the pursuit of consensus (which Hofstede associated with Scandinavia, the Netherlands, and Europe’s Latin countries, such as France, Italy, and Spain). The study suggests that societies and regions favoring “masculine” values (such as Japan, Germany, and Latin America) tend to have more rigid gender roles.

Power Distance

This dimension is defined as the extent to which group members accept unequal distribution of power. In societies where the power divide is pronounced (Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Europe’s Latin countries), individuals tend to accept the established order without questioning it. However, in societies where the power divide is small (Germany, Scandinavia, and Great Britain), individuals question power inequalities and seek to reduce them.

Uncertainty Avoidance

This refers to a society’s tolerance of uncertainty and ambiguity. Cultures that rank high in this dimension show less tolerance for change, and impose strict rules to reduce anxiety about the unknown (Europe’s Latin countries, Latin America, and Japan). Cultures with low uncertainty avoidance exhibit more flexibility (Scandinavian countries, Anglo-Saxon countries, Southeast Asia, and India).

Short-Term vs. Long-Term Orientation

Cultures with short-term orientation prioritize traditions and norms at the expense of change, which they view suspiciously. Societies that prioritize long-term thinking see change as inevitable, value accolades, and encourage efforts to adequately prepare for the future.

The Strengths and Weaknesses of Multicultural Workforces

The cultural dimensions defined by Hofstede shed light on numerous conflicts that can arise in culturally diverse workplaces. In addition to these dimensions, other factors, such as language and disproportionate cultural representation among staff, can create imbalance in employee relationships. The risks of poor human-resources management in this context should not be taken lightly, as it can lead to the following:

  • Clashes between coworkers and group division
  • Communication problems creating serious misunderstanding and frustration
  • Distrust and animosity resulting from cultural stereotypes

“I’ve seen coworkers shut down because they were hurt by their manager’s behavior, because they didn’t have the same cultural codes and struggled with incomprehension,” says Aurian de Maupeou, cofounder of the French company Selectra. With its headquarters now in Madrid, Selectra employs more than 600 people, representing 15 nationalities. “Sometimes there are tensions between coworkers because the cultural differences are too extreme,” he says.

“Sometimes there are tensions between coworkers because the cultural differences are too extreme”—Aurian de Maupeou, Selectra

As a result, it’s important for anyone managing an international workforce to be sensitive to cultural differences. A delicate approach will enable managers to see how enriching cultural diversity can be, leading to increased productivity and fulfilling relationships. For Eva Pacios Santamaria, the general country manager of Superprof in Paris, cultural diversity can only enhance the work environment. “It’s a great life lesson to see that people from all over the world can work together, move in the same direction, and develop the same work philosophy,” she says. “It’s an enormous challenge that demands serious involvement.” De Maupeou adds: “You must be capable of making yourself understood humanely so that your employees want to follow you, and it’s especially gratifying to regularly see that each culture is bringing its best and adapting in contact with others.”

“It’s a great life lesson to see that people from all over the world can work together, move in the same direction, and develop the same work philosophy”—Eva Pacios Santamaria, Superprof

The Key to Managing a Multicultural Team

Listen with Empathy

Good management requires great listening skills and empathy. “At Superprof, we’ve learnt to pay close attention to warning signs, to detect them quickly when an employee isn’t doing well,” says Pacios Santamaria, who touches base with new employees weekly at first, then once a month. “You can’t let it drag on, or tell yourself that the employee needs some time to adjust, because if a real problem is setting in, it’s very difficult to fix later.”

Be an Example

Daily management of a multicultural team is demanding. Managers, according to de Maupeou, “must serve as an example.” For him, being “in a comfortable situation” is just not part of the job. While he admits to imposing an “American-style professional culture centered on efficiency and results more than presenteeism,” he constantly pushes himself to explain his decisions, so that employees understand “that they’re there for the sole purpose of doing the job well.”

Using the Best Elements of Each Culture

Shedding personal prejudices to avoid imposing one’s own culture on others is a major challenge for managers of multicultural work environments. “A manager of international employees must be aware that what’s obvious to him is not necessarily the same for others, so he should never be judgmental,” explains Pacios Santamaria. “At Superprof, we never say to an employee, ‘I don’t know how it’s done in your country, but here it’s like this.’ We instead try to forget that we’re in France, to not emphasize our differences, but to create a company culture together that’s our own.”

Speak Your Employees’ Language

One last piece of advice: Put yourself in your employees’ shoes as often as possible. “When I came to Madrid, I forced myself to learn Spanish, and today, I force myself to communicate exclusively in Spanish with Spanish people, to put myself on their level and allow them to best express their expectations, questions, and misunderstandings,” says de Maupeou. Superprof uses the same approach, translating an increasing amount of its communication, internal documents, and emails into English and Spanish. “Even as managers, we force ourselves as often as possible to communicate with our employees in languages that we don’t speak perfectly in order to best integrate our new recruits who sometimes don’t speak French, and to put no additional pressure on them,” says Pacios Santamaria. “A company is successful when it succeeds in adapting to all of its employees, because they are what make the company, not the opposite.”

“A company is successful when it succeeds in adapting to all of its employees, because they are what make the company, not the opposite”—Eva Pacios Santamaria, Superprof

More than other managers, managers of multicultural teams must exhibit empathy and sensitivity with their employees. The benefits of this approach are twofold: It helps prevent misunderstandings that can lead to deep tension and frustration, and it maximizes each culture’s assets on a daily basis.

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Photograph by WTTJ

Translated by Kate Lindsmith

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