I have a challenge for you. Name me another country that has a workforce represented by as many nationalities and foreign workers as the UAE. Now I have a bigger challenge for you: put them all in a team together and manage them.
Those who have lived in the UAE will remember how confusing and frustrating the first few months can be when you arrive. Nobody seems to understand you, everything isn’t done like it is at home and the whole scenario reminds you of the film Lost in Translation. But soon you come to realise that your frustration is not everyone else’s fault and you start to develop an understanding for other people’s methods, cultures and understand how to communicate with people from so many different backgrounds.
Even the well-travelled of us are not equipped enough to understand so many cultures in one place, so it’s no wonder it causes such difficulty for managers trying to lead teams.
When I was at business school in Edinburgh, I took a recommendation from my brother who had attended Stanford University in the US to watch a lecture by Maggie Neale, professor of organisational behaviour at his university. She had performed a multitude of social experiments to understand how diversity in the workplace affects output. The experiment that stuck in my mind included two people put together to solve a problem and afterwards asked how well they thought they worked together. They found that those that generally agreed with each other and had a similar ideas thought that they worked well together, and those that had conflicting views believed they hadn’t worked well together. What was almost always the case is that those that conflicted or had differing opinions to each other actually created better solutions.
This experiment is the foundation of the notion that if we have the same ideas then there really only needs to be one of us, but building teams of people from diverse backgrounds and thought processes will create better overall solutions.
It is comforting to know that we have a competitive advantage in business because of the diversity of the country we live in but for managers to taste the fruits of this they need to understand how to manage teams from diverse backgrounds, otherwise this can be more of a hindrance than an advantage.
So the cutting question is: how do leaders become more effective at leading teams with diverse backgrounds? Nicolai Tillisch the author of Effective Business in the Gulf and regional partner of The Leadership Circle has studied the business challenges we face in the region and how to overcome these cultural complexities.
“The western management theories clash with reality when checklists for effective team work are applied with people, who are uncomfortable making any statements without clearing them first with their boss, and others for whom it is an insult to be challenged in front of other people,” he says. “The pragmatic leader will – in addition to having team sessions – apply extensive one-on-one dialogue with each direct report to provide him or her with a more trusted space and have conversation adapted to his or her specific style.”
Mr Tillisch highlights the importance of additional one-on-one communication and given that good communication is so vital for effective leadership, an emphasis on this is a useful discipline to minimise the big challenges when working together with people from different countries and languages.
From my experience, having thrown myself in the deep end in 2009 when I set up a technology company in Oman with 15 Indian web developers, I learnt that the key traits of leadership do not change when you are dealing with different cultures but they must be exaggerated and exemplified. Good leadership and management has many components such as thorough feedback, setting clear goals, tackling conflicts effectively, integrating team players and setting an example. These do not change in a culturally diverse environment but you must perform these to a much higher level to reap the benefits of good teamwork. This may seem like more work for managers but I found it puts you into good practice and hones your leadership skills more. I look at it as simply sharpening my axe before I chop down the tree. It takes some extra time up front but saves me more later.
As the American entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes once said: “Diversity: the art of thinking independently together.”
Paris Norriss is an entrepreneur and partner in Coba Education, which provides educators to schools and institutes
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