A Whole New World: The Role of Leaders in a Multicultural Environment

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Take a look at your workplace, is any of these familiar: some if not all members of your team are located in another city or in another continent even; your work group is composed of people from different departments and report to different managers, coming in at different shifts, maybe speaking different languages; your entire team shares one office but when you interact and work together, it sometimes feel that you all come from different planets, with misunderstanding multiplying the time and effort it takes to get things done.

A new  challenge is beWoman Having Birthday at Working faced by leaders today,  how does one manage employees’ perception that they are isolated  from co-workers and are set apart at work and how do you maintain  productivity and morale as offices feel  less like an employee’s home away from home and feels more like an  impersonal and technology- driven paper factory? Remarkably, these feelings of disengagement are brought about by our growing reliance on technology to communicate, on the need to work with others across distances and on the growing diversity in a workforce that is not just increasingly global in culture but also  becoming a mix of people from four different generations.

Last November 12, the Rotary Club of Pasig East through Past President Ammie Llona, invited the Green BOX Learning Solutions Team to talk to its members and guests about this leadership challenge. The Green Box Team delivered a short but well-received talk titled “Leading in a Multicultural Environment”  for the audience composed of  entrepreneurs, people leaders  and managers from government agencies, community organizations  and businesses.

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The speaker des1cribed what are commonly known as  “Virtual Teams” , work groups who, while having shared goals and responsibilities, has the added challenge of having to  see and talk to each other mostly through electronic media like phone, e-mail or web chat.  Members of such  teams are usually  divided  by physical distances  such as geography, site location and /or time zones  or  work shifts.

The part of the talk though that generated the most interest was the discussion on the  psychological distance that may exist  between the members of a Team even when they are in the same location and sharing the same shift.

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The Green BOX speaker described the conditions that cause  geographical distance, operational distance and affinity distance and the effect of each on the employee and on the team’s ability to collaborate and work smoothly together.  During the presentation, members of the Rotary Club of Pasig East and their guests took notes and frequently nodded, perhaps recognizing the effects in their own teams and companies. The talk ended with practical steps that a leader can take to  reduce the effects of physical distance.

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Among the techniques a leader may use to reduce physical distance were: scheduling  meetings fairly and maximizing the benefits and uses of face-to-face interactions. To bridge operational distance (which occurs when technology fails, is abused and /or is inappropriately or incompetently used)  leaders may discourage multitasking when over the phone, communicate more precisely and use a commonly understood language avoiding jargon and acronyms.

Affinity distance (which is brought about by differences in social status, culture and lack of a pre-existing  personal  relationship among members)  may be mitigated  by appreciating individual accomplishments and skills, providing opportunities for informal interactions when members can network, connect, and share personal experiences and establishing a culture of respect for various communication and working styles.

IMG_0814The short talk emphasized the  importance of having a diverse team capable of providing for everyone’s benefit  a wide range of work experience, different approaches to problems, creativity and innovative thinking that may not be possible in a  more homogenous work environment.  Such diversity  can be found built-in into virtual teams ready to be maximized.  business womanHowever, since such a diversity may bring out conflict among members, especially in a  geographically spread team,  it is a Leader’s  responsibility to  establish and promote an  environment  that  is  open and inclusive, embracing  and appreciating  individual members and  sustaining warm personal relationships even across distances.

For our host that evening , The Rotary Club of Pasig East, itself is an organization  of great diversity bound by a common need to be of service to their community, the talk was  both an eye opener and a helpful learning add-on to their weekly meeting.

This blog is authored by Majalla Gabrielle “Gabbie” Silverio. Gabbie currently works as a Learning and Organization Development Consultant in TGBLS. She had HR L&OD career experience in industries such as the BPO and Automotive. A graduate of B.S. Physics in U.P. Diliman, Gabbie enjoys writing for the TGBLS blog, reading, and playing as the favorite aunt to her grade 1 niece, Miko.