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Managing Multi-cultural Teams


On a recent trip to London, I had the buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant. The young man who managed the restaurant was British. The people on his team all spoke English, but with varying degrees of proficiency and accents.

As I watched this team perform their duties I noted several key elements that let this manager keep them working together with high efficiency despite their differences.

In an earlier article, Managing Foreign Language Teams, I listed the key elements of managing multi-language teams as

  • remembering different is not wrong,
  • respect is essential,
  • you must open up to new ideas,
  • focus on the goal,
  • and work harder at communicating at all levels.
This young man did not use the same key elements, but here is what visibly worked for him:


    Everyone on the team had a specific task or group of tasks to perform. They had been trained in their duties and could do them without much conversation during the meal. It was not clear whether the team members had been cross trained in the duties of the other team members, but they knew what they were doing that day and there was not a lot of overlap.

    Smoothed Interfaces

    Where the team members had points of interaction, the “hand-offs” had been rehearsed and went smoothly. The Eastern European hostess delivered the diners to the French, Spanish, and Scandinavian waiters with a couple of simple English-language sentences. There was not a lot of conversation required.


    The various members of the team were alert to opportunities to help other members of the team, and the diners. This was most noticeable with diners whose primary language was not English. One woman had difficulty understanding what one dish contained. The person who had placed the dish on the serving line tried unsuccessfully to explain in English. Then one of the bus boys stepped forward and explained it to the woman in her native Portuguese.


    When the manager had to explain something to a team member during the meal the directions were given in a clear, simple manner. He spoke slowly, calmly, and clearly while looking directly at the person so he could gauge comprehension. He would ask the person if they understood and once asked to have the directions repeated back to him so he was sure the person had understood correctly.


    The environment was very busy. A lot of people needed to be fed in a short period of time so they could get to their various appointments. The manager and his team all moved very quickly. However, the manager was always patient as he gave direction to his team or answered their questions.

    Good Humor

    Despite the pressures of the job, the people on the team seemed to enjoy their work and each other. There were no signs of conflict. Perhaps they had been well trained to present a cheerful public face to the diners, but it seemed deeper that that. People who enjoy their work do better work, smile more often, and work better in teams.

Bottom Line

Most of us will not be faced with managing a team who doesn’t speak our language, but these key elements extend beyond language. If you have ever managed a cross-functional team, you will know that it often seems like the business owners, the accountants, and the IT team, for example, are speaking different languages. Practice these key elements and you will be more successful managing teams whose members have different languages, skills, interests, or cultural backgrounds.

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