Multinational environments can be a rich place of work. The imagery it can evoke is a tapestry where cultural learning and sharing of ideas and thriving. Yet it can also be an environment of cultural friction, tension, and frustration. Throughout my time in the Canadian Armed Forces I have worked alongside other nations in training, deployments and career courses. I have even been stationed overseas at a NATO Headquarters. These multinational teams have spanned from small teams of Dutch, British, American, and Canadian to deployments where 74 different nations contribute! There are three main things I have observed and learned in these multinational experiences that continue to help me today.
Don’t judge someone’s intelligence by their command of the English language (or other working languages).
Many multinational teams have English as their working language. It is often easy to judge someone’s competence by how they articulate their work. This puts those of us who are native English speakers at a great advantage and those who struggle with the English language at a disadvantage. There are times when I have often been asked to review my colleagues, and even my superior’s work, for grammar and clarity.
In one multinational team, my direct superior would often complain about his team’s inability to “use the Queen’s English properly”. This attitude alienated members of the team when he would nit-pick their reports for grammar rather than content. It frustrated and angered (rightly) many of my peers. I recommended he take a different approach.
- If the report was unclear, ask specific questions for clarity.
- When someone asked me to review their weekly internal submission before submitting, I purposely would not change the text if it made sense, even if the phrasing was awkward.
- If people want to work on their english writing grammar, provide them recommendations for change.
Because I had gained the trust of this superior, he listened and I approached this subject in a way that suggested it would help my colleagues more effectively. The result was the team dynamic and clarity of written reports improved.
When developing training or running meetings, remember the point is to teach concepts or have people understand, not prove how smart you are.
As you can imagine the military does a lot of training. This includes field exercises, courses, and other workshops. When coming to a new organization you end up attending a lot of lectures and courses. Many of these courses are delivered in English. I found that many of my non-native English-speaking colleagues were lost as many instructors spoke fast and used complicated or fancy words. It felt like the speakers were trying to prove how well they knew the concept instead of bringing the language to an understandable pace for everyone. This often meant that after the training session our group would get together to review the material and see where some gaps in understanding occurred. This doesn’t only affect the non-native speakers. There are many processes and cultural language that can be lost in translation.
I have found these tips helpful when designing meetings or training that hold especially true in a multinational setting.
- Use common English words and phrases wherever possible.
- Provide explanation for new or unfamiliar terms.
- Pause frequently and speak slowly.
- Ensure the lessons or meetings are allotted sufficient time.
- Provide concrete examples when explaining a subject.
- Provide handouts, agendas prior to the meeting so people can read ahead.
Understanding culture is important.
To truly be team players and have workplaces that are diverse and inclusive, understanding cultural differences and nuances is important. This lowers the potential for unintentionally insulting or alienating members of the team.
Some of culturally accepted norms can bring division and friction within a team. I have found some of the simplest of things such as work routines, reaching consensus, and decision making create the biggest frictions. Having empathy and understanding of the cultural differences in your team will allow all members to bring their best selves to work and contribute to team goals. For people in leadership roles, this also means figuring out different approaches for providing direction to your direct reports.
These are the key things that have helped me when working with diverse cultures.
- If you are a peer, focus on your own work and workload.
- Try to take time weekly to sit with someone from a different culture than yours or those you more easily identify with. This is part of the experience and will help you become a more effective team member.
- As a supervisor be explicit with respect to expectations for working hours and task completion.
For me the last one, keeping patient, has been the most difficult. Especially when I perceive a lack of decision making or too much consultation is too time consuming and hindering my task completion. I have learned that losing my patience won’t help anything.
I believe that all these lessons can be applied to any team or organization. Understanding someone’s culture and background can help team members and leaders create an inclusive environment where people can bring their best to their work. Ensuring there is clarity in the passage of information and guiding team members to reach their potential make the individuals and the team stronger. Finally, the beauty of working in a multinational environment is that there is richness and diversity so different solutions can be brought up. It is also an opportunity to explore other ways of doing things.
Who knows you may decide to take some of those forward in your leadership journey.
About the Author
Cindy Legarie is an Engineer Officer with over 20 year of experience in the Canadian Army and a Professional Engineer with the province of New Brunswick. Cindy joined the Canadian Armed Forces in 1997 and has served in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Ukraine in leadership and planning positions. Cindy complied personal anecdotes from soldiers who served in 2 Combat Engineer Regiment into a book Bridges, Jumpers, Divers and Demolitions: An anecdotal History of 2 Combat Engineer Regiment in time for the unit’s 40th anniversary.
Cindy focuses on personal leadership development by raising awareness of the impact leaders have on their team and being fiercely accountable for their actions and decisions as well as the results and atmosphere of their team. She is believes all teams need to be grounded in a common purpose and the foundation of a good team is trust.
The Gasparotto Group helps organizations create cultures that develop highly effective leaders and build strong, resilient teams.