Best Practices for Managing Culturally Diverse Workgroups

Best Practices for Managing Culturally Diverse Workgroups

by Felicity Menzies

A German-based manufacturer was undertaking a review of its global workforce strategy. The firm had identified significant gaps in the acquisition and retention of skilled engineering talent, particularly in offshore markets. As part of the review, representatives from offices in Germany were liaising with colleagues in China, India, Korea, Mexico, Sweden and the United States. The Germans had asked their offshore colleagues to prepare detailed reports for their respective markets in terms of existing engineering talent, attrition rates, forecast shortages, the state of the local recruitment markets, financial impact and recommendations for addressing the gap in skilled engineering talent, locally and from a global perspective.

Six weeks into the review, tensions were running high and communication had collapsed. The Germans had found an error in the figures reported by Koreans and sent an email to the whole group highlighting the error. The Koreans were upset by the Germans’ public criticism, which significantly embarrassed them in front of their peers. They responded to the loss of face by withdrawing access to people and information.

The Swedish delegates found fault with their Indian counterparts’ top-heavy workforce structure and raised the issue with the German group lead. The head of the Indian delegate, who had been with the company for many years, took offence at the Swedes’ complaint. By raising their concerns directly with the German lead, the Swedes had not respected his experience and tenure, which he believed afforded him seniority within the global group and respect from less experienced colleagues.

The Germans admired the accuracy and detail of the figures reported by the Chinese but were concerned by the lack of narrative recommendations on how to address the engineering talent gap in their market. The group lead concluded his Chinese colleagues were inexperienced in workforce planning. During group conference calls, the Chinese counterparts rarely contributed their ideas. The Germans failed to understand that the Chinese were less fluent in verbal and written English than other group members, and although the Chinese members had valid suggestions for improving the engineering talent pipeline in China and also globally, they were uncomfortable raising their suggestions for fear of being unable to correctly express their ideas in English.

The task-focused Americans stepped in with some suggestions for the Chinese. Although the Chinese members doubted those suggestions would be effective in their market, they nodded politely to the Americans, not wanting to exacerbate the conflict they had noticed developing within the group.

The Americans and Germans complained among themselves about the Mexicans. They felt that their Mexican colleagues were inefficient and disorganised—constantly changing meeting times, running over time and diverging off-track to discuss other items. The German group leader sent an email to the Mexican group leader asking him to stick to meeting agenda. The Mexicans thought the German leader was rude to criticise them and they also didn’t like the way that the Americans and Germans rushed to discuss business before getting to know them—the Mexicans found their group members unfriendly and didn’t trust them.


Cultural diversity creates challenges for group-work, but when managed effectively, culturally diverse groups outperform culturally homogenous groups.

Cultural diversity increases the likelihood of value conflicts, decision-making differences, communication barriers and stereotyping and bias. Those challenges threaten the integration and cohesion of work groups, negatively impacting group performance. Also, in groups with multiple members sharing a similar cultural background, us-versus-them distinctions create fault-lines or subgroups.

But, on the flip side, culturally diverse groups have access to a greater diversity of thought which can enhance decision-making quality, creativity and innovation and problem-solving. Culturally diverse work groups can also better understand the needs and concerns of diverse consumer groups and other stakeholders.

Managers of multicultural work groups can decrease the risk of tension and fault-lines developing and unlock the strategic potential of cultural diversity, by employing eight key practices: creating shared norms; increasing explicit communication; fostering friendships; encouraging information- sharing; strengthening group identity; developing cultural intelligence; undertaking regular progress reviews; and managing conflict cooperatively.

1. Shared Norms

Culturally homogenous work groups rely on shared assumptions and norms to coordinate their behaviour. Shared understanding also fosters trust and intimacy between group members. But when interacting across cultures, differences in language, non-verbal cues and behavioural norms mean it is much more difficult to create shared meaning, contributing to misunderstandings, communication breakdowns, conflict, frustration and distrust.

The positive functioning of multicultural work groups requires the development of a shared group culture. The first step in creating a group culture is to involve members in an exploration of their cultural similarities and differences, paying particular attention to differences that directly impact group processes. These include communication (high context versus low context, email versus phone call), decision-making (individual versus group), scheduling (flexible versus rigid), supervision (autonomous versus directive) and conflict resolution (competitive versus cooperative). Cultural intelligence training with an experienced facilitator can increase awareness of intragroup cultural orientations.

While cultural similarities offer opportunities for building bridges of mutual understanding, differences are potential problem areas that require greater consideration. Managing cultural differences involves a choice between adaptation by some cultural groups to a dominant culture, or a blended approach resulting in a hybrid culture.

Cultural practices with a competitive advantage should be endorsed. Employee empowerment, for example, is linked to innovation and agility. For work groups with those goals, the best group culture is one that incorporates low power distance practices. However, the optimal solution involves some adaptation by every cultural group. Unless the shared culture is a hybrid solution, forced adaptation by some groups to dominant cultural patterns is likely to exacerbate fault-lines and subgroup tensions.

After the group has agreed on an optimal group culture, members must be trained in shared norms. This is particularly critical for countercultural practices that would otherwise be discomforting to some group members. Training should include the provision of information on why a particular practice had been endorsed and how it will contribute positively to group outcomes.

2. Explicit Communication

Cultural assumptions involve unspoken expectations about what should happen in a particular context. In multicultural settings, conflicting assumptions about the way to interpret and respond to events can lead to frustration, confusion and disagreement. To avoid this, managers of multicultural work groups need to focus on making implicit assumptions explicit. Goals, roles, responsibilities, interdependencies, schedules and group processes must be clearly communicated in written and verbal form in a shared language—most often business English. Using pictorials and charts can also be helpful when there is a large number of non-native speakers.

High-context cultures rely more on implicit communication. Members of high-context cultures might find explicit communication more challenging than members of low-context cultures, and they may need support in developing their explicit communication skills.

Language barriers also increase the likelihood of misunderstandings among members of multicultural work groups. Native speakers must slow down and speak clearly, without the use of colloquialisms, idioms or slang when interacting with non-native speaking group members. Recapping key points orally and in writing, and seeking to clarify understanding, helps all members of the group to ensure that their message has been correctly understood by other members. Both native and non-native speakers should be encouraged to ask questions. Asking questions to clarify understanding should be a shared norm that is encouraged and meetings must allow extra time for this.

Managers of multicultural work groups must be cognisant that non-native speakers may lack oral confidence and be hesitant to contribute, particularly in public settings. Consequently, native-speaking group members might dominant discussions and exert greater influence on group decisions and outcomes. Also, there are cross-cultural differences in norms related to speaking in a group setting, contradicting superiors, challenging peers, interrupting and turn-taking, as well as personality differences that might result in some members dominating others in group discussions.

Effective management of multicultural work groups requires that each group member is given an opportunity to contribute. This can be achieved by sending meeting agendas in advance, scheduling a time in the agenda for every member to contribute and consciously inviting every member of the group to contribute. It also involves actively monitoring and regulating the contributions made by more dominant members of the group to ensure every member has access to equal airtime.

Because attending to both process and content can be overwhelming for managers of multicultural groups, it can be helpful to appoint an independent group facilitator who takes responsibility for monitoring contributions and soliciting input from all parties. Multicultural work groups can also benefit from training in active listening.

Managers of global groups should also pay attention to how inequalities in communication patterns may exclude some members and reinforce fault-lines. As an example, when managers respond to offshore emails only during their own working hours, this may result in some members waiting over a day for a response. Also, when the timing of group meetings always requires the same location to ring in after-hours to accommodate for the temporal preferences of other locations—usually head office—resentment and exclusion can result.

Cultural differences in preferences for the use of the various communication modes can also cause confusion and tension in multicultural groups. It can be helpful to set prescriptive protocols regarding communication types—when to use face-to-face conversations, teleconferencing, phone or email, or when to cc or bccan email message. Communication protocols are particularly relevant for virtual groups.

3. Friendships

Trust between group members predicts the sharing of information, which is essential to group functioning and performance. Trust has two components: affective-based trust and cognitive-based trust. Affective-based trust is emotional and forms as a result of frequent positive interpersonal interactions where individuals share personal information. Cognitive-based trust develops from the demonstration of competence.  There are cross-cultural differences in the extent to which affective-based or cognitive-based trust matters. In culturally diverse work groups, it is important to promote both types of trust to account for those differences.

Affective-based trust improves intimacy and openness. When group members develop affective-based trust, they are less concerned about exposing their weaknesses or vulnerabilities and less suspicious of other members’ intentions. Affective-based trust reduces the risk of fault-lines and promotes the open sharing of knowledge and ideas. Fostering affective-based trust through building personal relationships should be a focus of managers of multicultural work groups. Social activities that provide opportunities for non-work interaction support the development of intragroup friendships as do work schedules that allow time for non-task based interactions on the job. Open office designs that increase the likelihood of water-cooler style interactions are also helpful.

Developing affective-based trust can be more challenging for virtual groups because opportunities for face-to-face interactions are fewer. Managers of virtual groups should seek to create deliberate moments for social interaction such as scheduling unstructured time at the start of meetings for free topic discussion, and investing in talent mobility practices such as job rotations or short-term assignments. Virtual communication technologies that simulate face-to-face communications can overcome some of the communication and integration problems that affect virtual groups, but they are not a perfect substitute for direct interaction.

4. Information Sharing

Whereas developing affective-based trust involves strengthening interpersonal friendships, building cognitive-based trust involves initiatives that promote the sharing of knowledge about group members’ skills and experience. In multicultural groups, and particularly for virtual groups, this information may remain hidden unless efforts are made to highlight it. One way to do this is to ask group members to share their short-form CV with other members of the group. Managers can also increase the salience of each member’s value by highlighting the unique contributions each individual brings to the group and by connecting members with other members who possess skills and knowledge that can help them in their role.

Increasing group knowledge of the skills, experiences and knowledge of members enhances group effectiveness and efficiency because individuals know where to turn to immediately for help and who is best placed to undertake a particular task.

 5. Group Identity

As well as improving communication and trust among group members, managers of multicultural work groups can reduce the risk of fault-lines by employing techniques to strengthen group identity. The creation of an overarching group identity dismantles subgroup us-versus-them categorisations. Managers can strengthen group identity by stressing group goals and the interdependence of group members for the successful achievement of those goals, and by reinforcing those messages at regular intervals.

The risk of a weak group identity is higher for virtual work groups. Group members outside of head-office can feel excluded, unappreciated and that they do not have as much power members located at head office. Conversely, head office group members might incorrectly perceive that offshore members are not contributing. Managers can improve inclusion and reduce the sense of power imbalance through regular contact with offshore group members, making an effort to understand the conditions locally that might be inhibiting their contribution to the group, including offshore offices in important decisions, keeping offshore staff updated and providing regular feedback and acknowledgement of their contributions and achievements to the wider group. As above, communication schedules should accommodate for different time zones and should rotate if necessary so that no group member is disproportionately disadvantaged in group communications.

 6. Cultural Intelligence

Studies show cultural intelligence improves group cohesion, integration and trust and supports the formation of shared group values in multicultural teams. In turn, greater trust and cohesion increases the exchange of ideas and information, enhances creative collaboration and improves group performance.

In addition, cultural intelligence improves relationships with diverse parties outside the workgroup. By increasing network reach and diversity, cultural intelligence enhances the likelihood of including parties possessing the knowledge, skills, contacts and resources needed for optimal group performance.

Managers of diverse work groups can develop the cultural intelligence of group members through formal training and informal development initiatives like international rotations or intercultural mentoring.

7. Undertaking Regular Progress Reviews

Managers of culturally diverse work groups should regularly check in with the group to assess member satisfaction as well as performance. Managers should look for problems in coordination, relationships and information-sharing.

 8. Cooperative Conflict Management

By stimulating diversity of thought, workplace debate increases the breadth of solutions available for problem-solving, promotes more critical information-processing in decision-making and stimulates innovation and creativity. However, not all workplace conflict is positive for group outcomes. Studies show that while task conflict—disagreements about the allocation of resources, practices or ideas—facilitates workgroup performance, relationship conflict—differences that relate to personal preferences and interpersonal styles—negatively affects group performance. Unlocking the value in diversity of thought requires the presence of task conflict but an absence of relational conflict. Clickhere for steps on how to employ cooperative conflict management to elicit diversity of thought in culturally diverse settings.

To learn more about how Culture Plus can help you to develop culturally intelligent leadership, download our workshop flyer or email

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.