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Nellie Wartoft


How to Keep Cultural Differences in Mind While Managing a Diverse Team

Select your team with intention and foster collaboration

Published: Wednesday, May 24, 2023 - 11:02

Diverse teams are an essential asset to any business. According to a Forbes article, “Companies with a diverse workforce are 35 percent more likely to experience greater financial returns than their non-diverse counterparts.” This is because heterogeneous teams can provide greater insight into a wider variety of potential audiences. Harvard Business Review reports that diverse businesses are 45 percent more likely to gain market share and 70 percent more likely to seize an entirely new market.

Yet, supervisors of all kinds know how difficult it can be to manage a heterogeneous team. People can give offense to others without even intending to, and miscommunications can lead to hard feelings that, if left unaddressed, can leave you with a divided workforce.

Below, I’ll explain how to keep cultural differences in mind while managing diverse teams to create and nurture a healthy work environment.

Recruit and retain the right people

As a manager, you get to choose whom you bring on board, whom you keep, and whom you let go. Selecting your team with intention—in recruitment, retention, and reduction—is your most important role as a manager. It’s also critical for fostering a healthy and diverse team.

Toward that end, hire only those who understand the importance of diversity and celebrate it as an asset. During the interview process, ask yourself: “Would this candidate honor my team’s cultural and other kinds of diversity?” If the answer is no, they probably aren’t the best fit for your company. Recruiting talent with the right attitude is important because if this fails, so will the rest of your efforts to champion diversity.

By definition, diverse teams are made up of people who have differing needs, goals, and anxieties. For instance, local laws where your team members live can vary, and work arrangements must embrace this variety. Be mindful of time-zone differences when working across regions, and consider instituting flexible work policies, which enable individuals to tailor their work to their own specific circumstances. When you trust individuals to shape their schedules and procedures according to their own best practices, you can expect increased productivity to result.

To retain the right people, make sure work policies are fair by holding everyone accountable to the same standards, values, and publicly announced objectives and key results (OKRs). The playing field for salary and responsibility tiers should be level. Provide equal feedback and recognition to employees by using merit-based criteria.

Celebrate diversity, cultivate collaboration

Offering opportunities to celebrate diversity, such as honoring holidays from team members’ cultures, helps teams come together. Exercises that uncover and address differences among team members can also have positive results.

For example, the leaders of my product and engineering team created a social-learning opportunity to help their staff collaborate and communicate more effectively. To foster understanding and promote open sharing in a team composed of people of seven different nationalities—Venezuelan, Singaporean, British, Australian, Emirati, Indonesian, Malaysian, and Indian—the team leaders developed and deployed a team-building exercise. This exercise enabled each individual to develop professionally toward their own personal career goals and allowed them to work on projects together and learn how to better present engineering to the wider organization.

This experience was extremely successful. Team members could be their own selves and communicate openly around new ideas, as well as practice new skills together in a real-life environment. In the process, they were able to identify gaps in understanding, learn each others’ communication styles, address language barriers, and actively experiment with new ways of collaborating and communicating.

However, it’s important to establish appropriate guide rails when creating such opportunities for collaboration. Set clear expectations for behavior and identify values that all employees should display, such as curiosity and an open mind.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

In my experience, much of managing a diverse team successfully comes down to fostering open communication, meaning leadership and managers should offer regular opportunities for providing that communication, such as all-staff and team meetings. Communication channels should remain open, and everyone should feel safe sharing their experiences, values, beliefs, and practices related to work. Everyone should also be given equal opportunity to speak and be heard.

To promote equal visibility across the organization, reduce reliance on one-on-one private chats. For example, have employees share work projects in a public Slack channel instead of just with their direct manager. This allows everyone to be aware of the work, chime in, and give support or suggestions. The output is often better, and because of the openness, the team becomes much more aligned.

Always avoid blaming or shaming anyone in public channels. Instead, managers should provide constructive, actionable feedback in private settings. Allow for conversation—don’t just demand things without the opportunity for the individual to discuss their perspective. This reduces assumptions and allows the other person to feel seen and heard.

To be most effective, communication must be reciprocal. As a manager, try your best to be direct, open, and transparent, and ask your team to be the same way with you by using straightforward language and providing context. Don’t insinuate things or leave part of your logic unspoken. Be specific and include examples so there’s no room for misunderstanding.

In addition, foster an environment where asking questions—including “why?”—is encouraged. Solicit constant feedback and articulate a clear expectation that people will speak up when they don’t understand, voice their concerns, share their feedback openly, and tell the team and manager when they disagree.

Along the same lines, hold meetings to talk explicitly about inclusivity. It’s particularly helpful to identify words or phrases that have different meanings and connotations for individuals. For example, my team had an internal discussion about using pronouns and how to approach them. An individual mentioned that certain phrases made them uncomfortable, which allowed others to be more mindful of their vocabulary choices moving forward. As long as context is provided and people are given the opportunity to be heard, you’re going in the right direction.

Clear behavioral expectations on both ends: That’s what you should strive to establish and maintain.

Accept difficulties as inevitable

Communication challenges are ongoing for diverse teams. Misunderstandings can never be 100 percent eradicated, but that’s OK—no one can fully understand and be in tune with several different cultures simultaneously.

The best way forward is to acknowledge differences, encourage understanding by asking questions, and hold conversations to reduce confusion. That’s how organizational leaders and managers can help people connect meaningfully.


About The Author

Nellie Wartoft’s picture

Nellie Wartoft

Nellie Wartoft is a Swedish entrepreneur who launched social learning platform Tigerhall in 2019, revolutionizing how professionals learn from one another in the real world. Under her leadership, Tigerhall has quickly gained traction with users across 32 countries, and employees in 12 markets. Tigerhall, bridges the skills gap by providing actionable insights from industry experts, or Thinkfluencers, delivered in ways that leverage common user behaviors familiar to people from their favorite social apps. She has been named on the 2021 Tatler Gen T list of Future Leaders and was recognized as one of the Top Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2023 by the International Business Times.


Very important points re: understanding other cultures

"An individual mentioned that certain phrases made them uncomfortable, which allowed others to be more mindful of their vocabulary choices moving forward." This is far from surprising because "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" works only when people share the same culture. All cultures share fairly identical values as to how people should treat one another, but courtesies in one culture may be inadvertantly offensive in another. 

I read a few case studies in which this happened. Giving somebody a gift wrapped in white paper would not be noticed in Europe or North America, but it is considered unlucky in Asian countries where white as opposed to black is associated with death and funerals. Golf is popular in Japan but a company lost sales when it offered four golf balls for the price of three; the Chinese and Japanese character for four (shi) is also the phonetic for death. There are some countries in which the OK gesture, which signifies approval in the United States, is an obscene gesture and the same goes for thumbs up. https://www.businessinsider.com/hand-gestures-offensive-different-countries-2018-6 There are countries in which one nods for no and shakes one's head for yes.

On the other hand, all cats (including black ones) are considered lucky in Asia. While snakes are disfavored in North America, and "snake" is used as a pejorative, nagas (snakes) are often considered benevolent in India. 

There was a purported story in which a French visitor to the US was offended when he asked a police officer if the latter could give him directions, and the officer replied "You bet!" "Bete" is French for beast so the visitor thought the officer was calling him this for no reason.

This suggests that it is very important to investigate, before one takes offense, what the other person really means if he or she is from another country. It's also important to keep track of holidays so one does not schedule an important meeting on a day that it is mandatory for somebody to take off, and also to make sure food meets the dietary requirements of everybody as pointed out by Rudyard Kipling in The Mother-Lodge. The Masonic Lodge of which he was a member included a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Catholic which pretty much ruled out pork or beef, and possibly any kind of meat on Fridays.

For monthly, after Labour,

We'd all sit down and smoke

(We dursn't give no banquets,

Lest a Brother's caste were broke),

This is an extremely important consideration in planning meals for any kind of conference in which people from different cultures will be present.