This guest blog was written by Microsoft Amsterdam employee Charlotte Thompson and is part of the Humans of IT Guest Blogger series. Charlotte and her colleague Nancy Bowles recently presented on this topic at Microsoft Ignite The Tour in Paris in November.
The cross-cultural workplace is an important topic for today’s IT professional because it forms the background and gives the context to many projects that we are involved in. Oftentimes people tend to prefer working with others who come from similar backgrounds and speak the same native language as they do. However, on the flipside this comfort zone can stifle creativity, limit ideas, and inhibit learning.
In fact, research shows that multi-cultural teams are much more effective in creative tasks than mono-cultural teams (Adler, N.J. International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior, 4th edition, Cincinnati, OH: South-Western, 2002)
So what keeps us from working effectively together when we are on a team with people from different cultures? Everyone has their own filters when it comes to meeting and working with others. Those filters are formed by many factors including place of birth, parents, education, socialization, religion, and of course, life experiences. Our brains naturally try to categorize people when we first meet them. Therefore, it’s all too easy to rely upon cultural stereotypes when meeting someone new. But this can be a pitfall because we miss out on so much about a person when we make assumptions.
When I asked the question, “Where are you from?” to the audience at Microsoft Ignite The Tour in Paris last month, I got a myriad of answers. So much depended on who was answering the question and how they identified themselves. Many people in the audience were born in countries other than where they were living, many people had parents of different nationalities, and many grew up speaking at least two languages at home, so the "Where are you from?" question is a complex and multi-faceted one.
The learning is that people can’t be so easily categorized by nationality or culture, and that by keeping an open mind, you can learn a lot about the people with whom you work. Keeping an open mind means being proactive with and curious about others, and looking for the strengths that each one brings to the table.
From a practical perspective, getting the best from a multi-cultural group requires creating an atmosphere within the team that allows each person to speak their mind, and show their strengths and abilities. Team-building exercises are helpful because they foster trust and openness. Be mindful of the fact that because of language differences, the pace of communication may be slower so allow extra time to ensure everyone is heard and that people are understood.
The most important piece of advice that works time and time again with teams in general but most particularly with multi-cultural teams is to celebrate and have fun. Holding events outside of work enables people to present a less formal side of themselves, but do also be mindful of what's culturally appropriate for different coworkers at these informal settings.
Bottom line: Cultural diversity can be your team’s greatest asset when teams know how to work with it. And it all begins with you #HumansofIT out there!
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