Successful with multicultural teams

Written by
Cornelia Kirschke
Making multicultural teams successful
International coach Stefanie Hilger provides insights into her work with multicultural teams
Psychologist Stefanie Hilger specializes in personality development and is an ID37 Master of the first hour. As an internationally active consultant and executive coach, she understands the diversity of people, their different backgrounds, cultures and ways of working very well. Stefanie herself has lived and worked in China, the US, France, Spain and countries with Arabic culture. These experiences combined with her psychology degree make her a sought-after consultant. She knows how to leverage multicultural diversity in a team.  

Stefanie, what defines a multicultural team?

There is more diversity; individually and culturally. I make individual diversity (variability) visible with the ID37 personality profile. Cultural diversity is acquired and learned. It reveals itself up in cultural norms, rituals and language. This individual and cultural diversity influences the cooperation in multicultural teams.

How do cultural norms manifest themselves in the team?  

For example, the boundaries of when behavior is considered impolite are individual. When culture is added to the mix, misunderstandings arise. I have accompanied several multinational teams (e.g., German-French). The mutual perception at the beginning was: German team members are "impolite" and the French "don't come to the point". It was valuable to make the cultural differences and expectations visible, to awaken team spirit and also common laughter into the teams.  

Can culturally induced misunderstandings be avoided?  

Yes, they can, to a large extent. It is important for all team members to understand that there are no absolute good or bad behaviors. We have different backgrounds that shape us. It's like our individual personality profile. Some are decisive, others are not. Some are extroverts, others are not. Everything has its justification. Our opportunity for growth is to not judge based on our own value system. Sometimes this is challenging, but when the knot is loosening, the togetherness is really good.

I am currently in Spain a lot and love the values of politeness, respect and cordiality that are lived here. These values are evident in every moment. In Spain, people always take the time to talk with one another. People here are very interested in getting to know each other. Even in business meetings, people want to learn about business partners on a personal level. There are fewer pigeonholes here; people go with the flow of the moment and integration is lived very naturally.

How do you work with multicultural teams?

I work on the form and intensity of communication. Feedback and critique are an integral part of my work with multicultural teams. With our German engineering culture, we are very clear in our statements about what is possible and what is not. That is unthinkable in other cultures: such direct confrontation can put colleagues from other cultures off. However, we can be clear and appreciative and thus build new bridges.  

I see the biggest advantage of multicultural teams for the team members themselves. They can develop their personality.

What are the biggest challenges for multicultural teams?

The challenges are in non-communication. Assumptions are made implicitly, but no one talks about the impressions. Particularly those who have so far moved primarily in their own cultural space must first become aware of their thoughts and feelings and then express them. If we talk about our impressions, it helps a lot in the collaboration. Many young people have studied abroad and are aware of cultural differences. They quickly notice if this topic has not yet been made conscious in a company. I like to share knowledge based on concrete stories.

How exactly do you go about minimizing prejudice?

By sharing experiences and knowledge. Prejudice and strangeness can be broken down if you understand the culture. Two examples:

  • I lived in the Maldives for a while. There - as in the entire Arab culture - it is normal for men to walk hand in hand through the streets. It is a visible sign of trust that goes back to the nomads. Entire family tribes depended on whether the person at their side was friend or foe. This knowledge helps to interpret this gesture correctly. And it helps to understand that this gesture is different between a man and a woman. In the Maldives, this is prohibited in public.
  • The assumption that Chinese businesspeople steal intellectual property. This is our western interpretation. In China, intellectual knowledge is collective property. China has a community-oriented culture. If I understand that, I don't have to get angry about I, I can adjust my behavior.

It may sound like stereotypes, but it makes a lot of things vivid. Workshops on multicultural cooperation continue to be in high demand and are an important part of my work.

What are the biggest advantages of multicultural teams?

I see the biggest advantage of multicultural teams for the team members themselves. They are enabled to develop their personality. They learn a lot about themselves and their cultural value system. When a sensation of foreignness sets in at the beginning in an intercultural team, it is an invitation to deal with one's own background and to understand that it is changeable. I can always decide anew whether my cultural framework fits me as an individual or not. However, in order to evaluate it, I must first experience it.

I myself value the Spanish culture exceedingly and I consciously bring my so-called “German values” (reliability, quality) with me. That's how I understand diversity: you integrate yourself into the group and at the same time show yourself as an individual.

Thank you very much, Stefanie.

Coach and seminar leader for intercultural cooperation

Stefanie Hilger is available to teams and executives as a coach and ID37 master. Find her contact details here:

Promoting diversity holistically in the company

If you would like to check how your company is doing in terms of diversity and diversity-conscious mindset and would like to anchor diversity awareness sustainably, you can do so via the ID37 certification program go:diversity.

Teaser photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

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