Career Advice Career Guidance and Counselling

Inclusiveness is key to getting the best out of multicultural teams

Carolyn, from mainland China, took over a finance and accounting management team, with four members being Hong Kong locals, two from the German headquarters and one member each from India and Japan.

A few weeks into her new role, she noticed that the four local members seemed to interact only on a minimal level with the other four. They would often go out for lunch together but never with any of the others. She also started to doubt the relationship between the Japanese and Indian colleagues. Quite frequently, either would come to her to complain about the other’s working style or other behaviour. It started to dawn on Carolyn that she had underestimated the cross-cultural dynamics in her team.

So what can a leader do to develop an inclusive team as a foundation for high performance? The key to inclusiveness is not knowledge but boils down to sensitivity and versatility.

Sensitivity means paying attention to verbal and especially non-verbal cues, as well as any feedback on one’s own behaviour. The good news is that nobody really expects someone from another culture to behave “perfectly” according to the norms of their culture. So, they will cut some slack and provide feedback if they experience any inappropriate behaviour.

However, sensitivity alone is not sufficient. It’s necessary to develop versatility, which can be defined as a mix of flexibility and capability.

Through a coaching assessment and subsequent team activity, Carolyn helped her team recognise that no matter how colleagues behaved, there was a good intention behind it. This didn’t necessarily make them like such behaviour, but it gave them a new perspective which made it easier to accept diversity.

Developing cross-cultural teams can be challenging — opening up individuals and encouraging them to be more sensitive and to develop versatility are key factors. At the same time, leveraging similarities within the team can further enhance team cohesion and, ultimately, performance.


This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Seeing eye to eye.