Leading multicultural teams

Just a few years ago, we could find very little that had been written about multicultural mission teams.  The subject has been of great interest in our mission organization, since our membership is becoming increasingly international, and many, if not the majority of our teams, already include members from countries other than the USA or Canada.   But very few resources for guiding the team leaders of such teams were readily available.

A few would know of Lianne Roembke’s work, Building Credible Multicultural Teams.. Unfortunately, Roembke’s book has still not been released in digital form, and I cannot seem to find anyone who has written a review of it.  Then in 2011, Sheryl Silzer of SIL published her book, Biblical Multicultural Teams: Applying Biblical Truth to Cultural Differences. Silzer’s work focused on the formative nature of one’s childhood home and how that experience has impacted one’s view of what is right and wrong.   

Both are valuable resources, but neither focuses on helping the team leader build a strong multicultural team.   Thankfully, this summer, William Carey Library published a brand new book on the subject — Leading Multicultural Teams by Evelyn and Richard Hibbert.  
The Hibberts have served in both the Middle East and Bulgaria, and have experience in cross-cultural church planting and in leading multiple multicultural teams.   Furthermore, for about 8 years, they served in the role as International Director for Equipping and Advance with WEC International, which involved providing missionary teams with on-the-job training.   Evelyn completed a doctorate in education on the subject of multicultural team leadership, and Richard completed his PhD at Trinity International University in intercultural studies.  So they are both highly qualified to write about multicultural teams and more specifically about leading them.
Leading Multicultural Teams is very thoroughly researched, as all the footnotes and pages of bibliography demonstrate.   But it is very readable, practical and not as academic as Roembke’s book. 
The first section of the book discusses the various cultural differences that impact multicultural teams.   Their research suggests that the following six cultural dimensions are most significant in understanding the conflicts that teams face:
  1. Individualism versus collectivism
  2. High-context versus low-context communication
  3. Task orientation versus people orientation
  4. Direct versus indirect communication
  5. High power distance versus low power distance
  6. High uncertainty avoidance versus low uncertainty avoidance. (Kindle location 623)
Team leaders need to be familiar with these differences, and more specifically how these differences are played out on their particular team.   The Hibberts make it clear that it is unrealistic for a team leader to adjust his/her communication style to fit each individual culture in the context of a team meeting.   Instead each member of the team needs to learn to respect the different cultures on the team, and the team needs to develop its own culture, a unique mosaic of the cultures on that team.
The book goes on to talk about how a team leader would help the team develop trust through the various stages of forming, storming, norming and performing.    The Hibberts warn the team leader that the formation stage of a multicultural team is the most critical period and takes much longer than for a monocultural team. “Multicultural team leaders generally need to specially focus their attention on the relationships in the team for the first three to six months of the team’s life.” (Kindle location 1343)
Not nearly everything in the book is uniquely for multicultural teams.  A chapter is devoted to guiding the team leader through the various steps of clarifying the team’s vision, values, goals and strategies.    

“If the process of defining vision has been done well, team members will be passionate about their vision, continually communicate it, and passionately defend it. It will be constantly referred to and used to evaluate all team decisions and activities. It is the single most important element in defining the team’s identity and helping the team change from a group of individuals to a collective “we.”” (Kindle location 1900)

Another chapter talks about managing the different personalities, roles and gifts on the teams.   Here the Hibberts argue that each personality type is essential, but they need to be kept in balance.   “Where there are imbalances, the team needs to be aware of them and make an effort to correct the imbalance. One way of doing this is to encourage team members to develop ways of thinking that are less natural for them.” (Kindle location 2332).

Chapter 7 addresses managing conflict on the multicultural team. Following Mitchell Hammer’s Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory, the Hibberts very helpfully show that different cultures engage in conflict in different ways. A culture will be located somewhere on the continuum of direct communication — indirect communication, and at the same time, somewhere on the continuum of emotionally expressive — emotionally restrained in conflict. Westerners (and particularly Canadians) tend to be direct and emotionally restrained in conflict, whereas Slavic peoples are also direct but quite emotionally expressive. Not recognizing this nuance, I was horrified at first by how much “heat” I observed when Russian pastors engaged in conflict. I did not realize that my value of emotional restraint in conflict was not shared by my host culture.

http://tammysong.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/intercultural-conflict-resolution-styles/
The Hibberts devote two chapters to describing the character qualities and skills that multicultural team leaders need to develop. This list is based on their extensive research, and has been adapted into a multicultural team leader inventory, found in the appendix.

The final chapter was the most applicable to me as a training director, since it talked about how organizations can support team leaders.   The Hibberts argue that mission organizations should not only provide training in multicultural teaming, but also appoint someone to be a team coach.  The team coach is not the team leader, and does not live on site.   His role is primarily in training, mentoring and supporting the team leader in establishing its vision and in resolving conflict on the team.   

“The role of a team coach is intensive at the beginning of the life of the team, but if coaches do their work well through team formation and storming, there will be fewer problems in the future and the coach will be able to concentrate on other teams.”  (Kindle location 3731)

“Leading Multicultural Teams” focuses on the process of teaming, rather than the work of the church planting team.   If you are looking for a good book to address the church planting work, and the role of the team leader in directing that work, then I would highly recommend Daniel Sinclair’s A Vision of the Possible: Pioneer Church Planting in Teams.   But Sinclair does not say much at all about the challenges of helping a multicultural team to function as a synergistic team, and this is where “Leading Multicultural Teams” shines.   

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