Building Multicultural Teams Means Building Success

April 18, 2010

Does your team lack cohesiveness and understanding because it comprises members from different—even conflicting— cultures? Would your productivity increase if team members from different cultures could work together more effectively? If so, you may benefit from multicultural team building.

In Canada especially, where multiculturalism is an integral part of our national identity, workplaces are filled with employees and managers from all corners of the globe. Sometimes, the cultural differences that arise in the workplace can create conflict, miscommunication, and diminished productivity. In certain industries, such as health care or manufacturing, these conflicts and miscommunications can increase the risk of injury to others.

So, how do you build and solidify a multicultural team? The first step to bridging cultural differences is awareness. Recognizing that things would run smoother if everyone communicated and respected each other is the first step to solving the problem. In too many cases, managers from the dominant Canadian culture will overlook or brush off cultural issues, because they are difficult to define and, at times, delicate to talk about. People worry about being called bigots or racists when they speak about diversity issues in the workplace.

In my experience, the opposite is true. If a manager has the courage to say, “We have some issues around diversity to examine. By facing up to them, we will build a stronger team, and we will each learn something,” then the veil of embarrassment or discomfort is lifted and an open dialogue can begin.

This dialogue is the second step. It means giving everyone in the group a voice, and creating a safe space for others to speak and be heard. A moderated dialogue, facilitated by an experienced diversity consultant, will help to keep things focused, and ensure that everyone feels respected. Awareness and dialogue are not enough, however, to solve the problem. From there, we need to move to action. This involves creating a new culture that is focused on neither traditional Canadian culture, nor the other cultures involved, but on building a strong, diverse, productive, multicultural team. It means shedding old stereotypes, to make way for a new team identity that gives each member an equal voice, and promotes both diversity and productivity.

This new culture establishes a new benchmark for tolerance within the organization. It also lays the foundation for new policies, procedures, and other governance issues pertaining to operations and personnel that will keep your team focused and productive.
A new team culture can be built in various ways. It may include:

  • identifying key issues and concerns for your organization—what specifically needs improvement? what situations, circumstances, or personnel issues do you need to target?training for managers and staff in cross-cultural awareness, management, and conflict management;
  • training for staff in expectations of the Canadian workplace, and managerial and operational styles;
  • language and/or accent-reduction training to enhance communications for non-native speakers of English;
  • cross-cultural communications training for all staff and managers.

This final step to building a successful multicultural team is crucial. Once communications and awareness issues have been successfully managed, you can move on to applying the new model to enhance your team environment, productivity, and even the bottom line.

With increased trust and awareness, team members will be open to adopting new ways of thinking and working. You will be able to identify specific areas within your team or organization that require attention and find effective solutions that all team members support and are willing to put into action. If you previously had personnel issues rooted in cultural differences, you will be able identify them, explain why they must be addressed, and, most importantly, you will have the tools to ensure that your staff and managers work effectively and respectfully.

Building multicultural teams is about increasing awareness and tolerance, and eliminating, or at least diminishing, resistance and even conflict. Some of the team-building strategies familiar to North American businesses may work, but multicultural teams have some unique characteristics. Learning to use these productively will benefit you, your team, and your entire organization.

Copyright © 2002 by Sarah Elaine Eaton


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

3 Tips for dealing with non-English speakers on the phone

February 5, 2010

Anyone who answers or makes calls is going to encounter someone whose first language isn’t the same as their own. Providing this person speaks enough of the language to understand you, there are three key tactics you can use to set yourself apart from other, less compassionate and understanding people, when it comes to dealing with callers whose first language differs from yours.

Smile. The person on the other end of the phone can “hear” your smile and will respond to your positive energy. About 70% of our communication is non-verbal, so a smile conveys a lot, even if the other person can’t see it. But did you know that the smile is the only universal facial expression? All others can be interpreted in different ways, depending on the culture. But a sincere smile will always transcend words and cultural difference.

Be extra patient. Imagine you are the person on the other end of the phone. You would appreciate it if the native speaker did not jump in while you were still talking, finish your sentences for you or skip to the next point without letting you finish. If you allow a non-native speaker to finish saying what they have to say, listen intently and be patient, you will win respect and trust.

Speak slower, not louder. People whose first language isn’t English may need more time to process the language, but their hearing is probably just as good as yours. If you slow down the pace of your speech and leave longer pauses in between sentences, you will allow the other person time to absorb everything that you are saying. Don’t exaggerate your pauses or tone, but rather think of speaking slowly, clearly and cheerfully. If you do, the person on the other end will know you are trying to be helpful, not patronizing.

(This article is adapted from one published Sept. 8, 2003 in a weekly newsletter for language program marketers and managers on a Yahoo group.)


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

3 Key Elements of Leadership

February 3, 2010

Leaders are everywhere. They are business owners, executives and managers. They are teachers. They are parents. Sometimes they are children. Anyone can be a leader. Some people think that being a leader is something that comes with a particular job or vocation. I disagree. After having studied leadership for a number of years, I am convinced that most of us have the capacity to improve ourselves so that we can either become leaders, or improve the natural skills we already have.

There are three key elements of true leadership. The first is to set an example by living it. Many years ago Gandhi said “We must be the change we wish to see in the world”.  No truer words have ever been spoken. In order to lead powerfully we must first demonstrate the attitudes and behaviors we expect and want from others. This may seem simple, but how many times how you run across a manager whose attitude is “do as I say, not as I do”. These people may be managers, but they’re not leaders.

If you’re a business leader and you want your staff to dress professionally, you set the example by arriving in a suit every day. If you’re a teacher and you want your students to turn in their homework on time, you give them back their corrected assignments in a timely manner. If you’re a parent and you want your children to make their beds, you make your own bed in the morning. No excuses. Leaders live the example they want others to follow.

The second element of true leadership is to inspire others and give them hope. You can turn on any news channel today and see stories of death, despair and terror. It is true that terrible things have happened in the world. Leaders will acknowledge the reality and ask themselves what they can do to keep the human spirit thriving and growing? The answer is often found in hope.

There may not be easy answers to every situation. But there’s always a reason to hope. The resilience and strength of the human spirit are powerful. The strength of our spirit can help us overcome tremendous pain and grief. It is what allows us to continue to love and be loved when we feel all is lost. Leaders recognize this and remind others of it.

Finally, leaders empower others. Everyone has hopes, fears and dreams. Leaders encourage others to pursue their dreams and help them overcome their fears. This means working with others to help them understand how to prepare for success and then make their own dreams reality.

Once when I was coaching a very capable director of an international language program at a university. She expressed frustrations about lack of funding, too little time and too few resources. I replied that as an educational leader, her focus was her students. Educating and empowering them was at the core of her value system, and her work as an educational leader. If she forgot this, then potentially hundreds of students would walk away from her program disillusioned, rather than vibrant with new potential. Realizing this was true, she resolved to do  whatever she could to improve her program so students could continue to grow and learn as a result of it. She later told me that was a pivotal conversation for her, as she realized that her first order of business was to serve her students and help them become the best they could be.

Leaders look beyond themselves and their own wants. With compassion, honesty and guidance leaders will help others to reach their maximum potential as human beings in whatever way they can.

These 3 actions: living the example, inspiring others and empowering others are keys to success and genuine leadership.

See Dr. Eaton speak on this topic on YouTube:


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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