Managing (and Working with) Multicultural Team

Why it's not as straightforward as you might think

I’ve not managed a big team. The most I’ve had was about four people. I have never been keen in managing people, although recently I’ve changed my mind. But still, it’s not an easy thing, even for the most experienced.

In 2014, when I was working for a client-service company, I was given the trust to lead the design team. That design team had two members in it. It was me, and the other one. Technically speaking, we’re just a… pair. But I was responsible in setting up performance reviews, hiring and the first career path for designers in the company. Come to think of it, I think that was the first time I fell in love with managing people. I loved the process and trust.

Fast forward to 2019, I was again given the trust to manage a team of four across different geographies. This brought its own challenge. I was managing a diverse kind of group, and most importantly, across different culture.

See, in 2014, I was an Indonesian managing an Indonesian. Of course every individual is different, but culturally, we had the same expectations. We speak the same language, literally and figuratively. There’s a lot of unspoken consensus—meaning that we don’t have to communicate a lot of things to get aligned. We sort of already knew what to expect.

For example, I didn’t need comprehensive updates from her from time to time. A short colloquial conversation was good. I didn’t even need to scrutinise her words into the smallest details. We just understood. No drama.

Even if the conversation got difficult, we released it off easily.

Things get tricky when I managed someone from different cultures, from different countries. In 2019, I got to manage a designer in India, Singapore and Australia. I got to hire a new person in India too. So that’s that: even though I’ve worked with them, when I switched to managing them, it was a different experience.

First, although we all speak the same literal business language (English), there is a lot of nuances and differences in how one behaves and brings themselves forward to you. They bring a lot of new unspoken expectations, that, if they were Indonesians, I would have already recognised those. But this is different.

For example, for India, there is a sense of optimism, confidence and outspokenness. Sometimes it portrays as aggressive. As an Indonesian-Javanese, I find this disturbing. There’s an Indonesian word I know, “nggak tau malu” or literally translated as “shameless”. There’s a big hesitation and restraint in Indonesian-Javanese culture that just doesn’t apply to my Indian friend.

He would just come to me and say or demand things like that.

I was startled at first, but then I realised, I needed to understand it. It’s a cultural thing. That’s the most comfortable or habitual way of him to interact. In essence, there’s nothing serious—we just operate at different “frequencies”.

I recognised this difference, and as a manager, I started to shape my interaction style towards his, to the best of my ability. I begun to practice openness. I also became more direct when needed. He was also the type who liked to have 1:1 more frequently. He liked to talk. So, I accommodated it, and he was happy. His values were openness and directness.

Managing my Filipino counterpart was obviously different. He was very casual, but hardworking at the same time. It’s also a very high context culture, and a lot of unspoken rules (like the way you communicate mattered to him). He wouldn’t show disappointment or remorse if you didn’t communicate well, but he’d try to be diplomatic about it. I find it similar to Indonesians, but he tends to speak out more. It wasn’t too hard for me because I appreciated a little bit of honesty and openness in there. To communicate with him, it has to be casual, but clear at the same time. Don’t leave any ambiguity, but don’t stress him out with details.

I also had a fair share of time managing an Australian-Asian. In a way, we share cultural traits (e.g. “did your mom always make you drink hot water for every illness?”) but at the same time, there are also differences. Western values are all about speaking your mind, but not only that: it’s about creating a space for conversations. All of my managers from the US or Australia almost never gave one-sided conversation—it’s always two-sided, and very egalitarian… or democratic (for a lack of better word). This was good but sometimes tricky because there might be signals we don’t get, that we fail to respond to, or pose risks of cancelling each other, or risks of not having any decisions. The list goes. In this case, what would be the best way to communicate with her? I always posed myself as the better listener. It worked most of the time, I guess.

Many managers probably think every subordinate thinks like them, behaves like them, expects like them. The reality is, it’s most likely true only if you both share the same culture or traits. But, in an increasingly diverse workplaces, we need to take into account these differences.

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