The Challenge of Leading Multicultural Teams

August 12, 2021

With globalized work teams, leaders must learn to manage projects with collaborators located in places remote from each other, and this requires specific skills. Mark Murphy, the author of best sellers on organizational leadership and founder of the website ―where you may find from contents to training material― recommends the development of certain skills to work transversally in different time zones, always building respect for each co-worker. In this regard, he suggests that communication should always be constructive and open in order to reinforce positive messages and ensure that there is a true learning curve. The best way to achieve this will be ―according to Murphy― exercising a Leadership 2.0, in which interactions by phone or video call are as similar as possible to face-to-face communication, and in which each party may talk about their achievements but also express their doubts and uncertainties. 

Remote leaders or, as called by journalist Jennifer Roig, “virtual leaders,” should use both their skills as well as the tools provided by technology to inspire trust and be good communicators, in particular, when the results are other than expected. 

Trust, Proactive Behavior, Organization, and Clear Goals

According to Kristi DePaul, a writer and specialist in remote professional careers, the skills required to manage remote teams include trust, proactive behavior, and organization. 

Inspiring trust is crucial for an organization to work. It is essential to be able to transmit to the team members that they have a transparent leader who is able to lead them to the desired outcome. 

Yih-teen Lee, a professor at the Spanish business school IESE, also suggests that virtual team leaders should always bear in mind that each member of a project should be united around a common goal. He further states that each virtual group operates with different mechanisms and that “it is the leader’s job to identify and understand the features of this operation to engage their members around a common goal.”

Multicultural Training

To that regard, Mauricio Salvatierra, Talent Development Center Manager of Globant in Argentina, affirms that a good leader should be able to convey the culture of the company and take into account the background of the team members. He states that diversity at work “generates a huge impact on society.” He further affirms that the key at Globant is that “there are excellent professionals, but above all, excellent people.” 

Salvatierra has been working at Globant for more than 15 years. In that company, teams often are necessarily multicultural, as they are not formed in a specific physical place: “The work and management dynamics is that there are no geographical barriers to do our job.” Therefore, for leader to be good leaders, they “must have tools to empathize and get out of the comfort zone” regardless of distances and differences.

When working in India as Operations Integration Manager, Salvatierra had to take into account the time differences and cross cultural barriers. He says that the training received under the Globant Leader Acceleration Program and the Líder Inclusivo (Inclusive Leader) program, both especially designed to lead multicultural teams, was very useful to achieve this and align work teams with different languages, contexts and personal situations. “We had to learn to manage integrating other realities without requiring the others to adapt to us. To do so we selected a system called “Follow The Sun.”

Ultimately, the team strength is not only based on the trust that employees may have on the manager, but also on the reliable relationships they may build among themselves. The fall of employee engagement could have a negative impact on the company’s productivity. The path towards the execution of a project should be based on bonds of respect and on a leadership with ethics and positive corporate values.  

Salvatierra further states that “Globant already has 20,000 employees but it is still learning. It is a young company. Then, to keep on advancing, it creates activities with the People team to share the experiences of other countries and build more connections among people.” This means that the training process is permanent.

Artificial Intelligence and Personal Skill

In a constantly innovating technology environment, the leader must learn not only to combine remote teams but also to combine their personal skills with artificial intelligence mechanisms. In a context of job redefinition, automation and ―in addition― the impact of a pandemic, the key formula is to join artificial and human intelligence. 

Technology is the means people uses to carry out projects from anywhere in the world, but it should be combined with an inspiring and proper leadership. 

Given that artificial intelligence (AI) is increasingly used, managers should discover and develop the skills required to manage remote teams, such as agility and flexibility, but also those skills that make them completely different from machines and which are related to encouraging passion, empathy and the willingness to create. 

Shivraj Sabale, Head of Globant in India, highlights the human challenges that the pandemic posed for team management: “More than ever before, we must be empathic. People are taking care of their families and working at the same time.” Sabale gives a simple example of adaptation to the current times: “We must not set deadlines requiring a constant presence. We could trust more in the others, in their willingness to perform their jobs and in their abilities to decide and deliver independently. This will give them not only flexibility but trust to improve repeatedly. It is essential not to abandon this attitude on the first or second failure, as this is a new world and everyone is trying to deal with it.”

A team includes the synergy of different ways of thinking and skills that work towards a common goal. Today, it also involves a combination of different cultures, geographies and life experiences.

Sabale further states that “one of the main challenges of working remotely and in a dispersed environment is understanding the context of the other person. We are often immersed in work and that makes it difficult for us to understand a perspective different from ours. The best way to start is to study the context of each team member, their working hours, the time zone where the member lives, and their cultural hues, and then create a detailed overlapping plan so that everyone may work together.”

Salvatierra agrees: synchronizing Globant’s team in India entailed a cultural integration responsibility aimed at also working with the structural differences that existed among the individuals involved: “We had to switch from the traditional Indian vertical approach to our Glober dimensions, a more matrix-type approach. In India, it seems that if you do not move up the job ladder fast, you are not succeeding in life. That is why we adapted the names of jobs, responsibilities and roles,” he tells. Salvatierra also highlights the importance of considering not only labor contexts, but also the social, personal and political contexts. For instance, in India, “a way to show respect for the culture of its inhabitants is to eat with the hands, as they do.”

All Things Talent, an initiative by Naukri Hiring Suite  to build a community of Human Resources professionals, suggests taking into account the differences among each individual when deciding on communication styles and considering the individual reference frameworks. 

But how may the leader be sure that such a diverse team may work effectively? A way to do that is by taking advantage of having an intercultural team and learning from the different perspectives that you will find. Diversity always leads to innovative solutions.

Exercising a leadership that welcomes challenges, that gives the opportunity to achieve something interesting and innovative is advisable. Regarding communication, it is essential to reinforce the idea that there is no one and only proper way of solving problems. Thus, challenges become opportunities: with a good leadership management and identification of personal talent, that which may be the biggest weakness of a virtual team may become its main strength. 

When working remotely, encouraging and motivating is important. Remote employees need a strong manager that keeps them focused, with clear messages and simple conversation. According to Murphy, the most successful managers are able to encourage and instill optimism and positive energy. 

Regarding proactive behavior, DePaul affirms that it is essential to consider problems in advance and also to take the initiative to understand the employees and know how they feel about the job: what they like, what is frustrating for them and which are their strengths as to boost them. 

In brief, the remote leader should be accessible, empathic, able to talk to the employees about what is going on with them, even in the personal sphere, and despite the physical distance. A satisfied collaborator will have a positive impact on the business. 

The leader’s proactive approach is directly related to the capacity of foreseeing the need for a change and the ability to carry out that change assertively. A leader should be able to organize in such a way that there is room for reflection. When leaders implement processes that allow for more visibility and a faster production, they show the rest of the company that they value the time of everyone and that they are committed to improving the work of each employee. 

The authority and leadership model is changing at the pace of a new digital world that makes us work with agility and flexibility in a virtual and global work environment. The change of mentality has to do with leaders that become facilitators, that encourage their collaborators to assume responsibilities and develop as individuals, beyond the restrictions set by the old paradigms of on-site work. 

Today it is less and less necessary to comply with fixed office working hours, and freedom and autonomy are boosted by remote schemes. Under these new working conditions, employees are generally more effective and increase their response capacity, provided that they have a leader that validates and conducts the remote work. 

As stated by Salvatierra: “It is not merely having employees doing what they know, but they should also feel happy, supported; they should know that you know their culture, that you are incorporating every day their customs with common sense and empathy. This may be facilitated with a mere trust gesture, as starting the meetings by asking each of them: ‘How do you feel?’, and showing that you understand that you are working with persons, no matter where they come from.”

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Diversity, equity and inclusion are key to our business. Technology requires us to innovate constantly, and we can only achieve this if we bring together different points of view. Some of the areas we are working on include focusing on improving gender equality in our industry, inclusive hiring practices, and helping people to achieve a work-life balance.