We were almost set for the session to begin.
Wu arrived early. Xiao came late. And Big Mike sauntered in with a nasty disposition.
BJ came eager to help. Gorbachev tiptoed in anticipating drama. And JT scooped up a couple more donuts and hunkered down to catch the show. Other employees scrambled around, and the room soon filled to capacity. It was the most unlikely assortment of colleagues I could envision. An international crowd with a true Texas cowboy twist. Jimmy Chow sat quietly watching it all unfold. His patient demeanor beamed optimism.
Out of the blue, things turned ugly. Big Mike launched into a rant highlighting the intolerable differences between Chinese and Americans. His condescending tone raised eyebrows. Tempers flared. I gulped twice and wondered if it might take a miracle to transform this group into a cohesive, high performance team. Jimmy Chow never said a word. He sat quietly watching things develop.
So what can you do when your team members find more reasons to clash than to collaborate? It’s easy to overreact. It’s also tempting to ignore their conflict. Neither is the perfect solution. But what’s the right balance?
Act decisively. While storms can blow over, there is a severe risk in sticking your head in the sand and avoiding the drama. A cultural misunderstanding can torpedo your team, destroy any unity and corrupt all communications. As a leader, your actions matter! I knew it wasn’t an option to let Big Mike’s caustic remarks go unchecked. The gathering clouds were ominous.
So I invited Mike to join me in the deserted hallway. He was stunned. I explained the need for him to demonstrate his best leadership. He didn’t seem [or want] to understand, so I spelled it out again. This time a bit more passionately. I emphasized that we needed him to help reset a new and more positive tone for the multi-cultural group. I asked him to become a galvanizing influence on the team. I wasn’t sure what to expect as we stepped back into the conference center. He wasn’t a happy camper.
So what can you do when your team is comprised of people who are like butterflies of many colors and don’t partner well? Our recommendation: Find the common ground. Establish an agreeable set of guiding principles that apply in all instances. Stay the course and steadfastly cast everyone’s eyes on the team objectives. Never flinch. Embrace a cross-cultural environment that reinforces “this is our workplace for the present and future.”
In this case, Jimmy’s corporate objective was to create a unique “work-smart culture.” This would give his company a competitive edge in his marketplace. This became our collective mantra. We refocused the group and simultaneously built a human connection between the people. Here’s how: We applied three specific team building exercises.
They work wonders for bringing together a diverse crowd. Try them:
- Exercise 1 – Show your group how to encourage their teammates.
- Exercise 2 – Teach your employees how to apologize when they let a teammate down.
- Exercise 3 – Coach your team how to thank others for their help and support.
These suggestions may sound basic, but fundamental interpersonal skills are no longer practiced in many companies.
Many leaders have sidestepped their leadership responsibilities in favor of managing the herd with stats and ultimatums. Accountability is essential, but as leaders we are relying upon mere mortals who are constantly experiencing the ups and downs of our contemporary times. They need the moral support of their peers. We all do. To ignore this fact is unrealistic and short-sighted.
Further compounding the matter many employees in today’s diverse workforce have been deeply scarred by not being valued in the workplace. As our society has shifted gears from the industrial age to the high tech era, the component left behind was the human element. People around the world are starving for the human touch. Hence, you will find a special opportunity in the multicultural workplace to build an exceptional team.
Make no mistake, there’s great value and power in saying “I’m sorry” and “thank you” in the corporate world. The first time someone sincerely apologizes or says a genuine “thank you,” the entire work environment shifts. The fiber of these comments fortifies the bonds between employees. And when these skills become habits they also establish profoundly important building blocks in the multi-ethnic company.
Big Mike made an even bigger turnaround and contribution that day. By the time we finished with our session that summer afternoon, the team had settled down and recommitted to the principles they aspired to reflect. Surprisingly, Mike apologized for his behavior to his boss and to the Chinese Americans sitting beside him.
As leaders, it’s up to us to set the framework for our team. Let’s not forget that they too are people with fears, hopes and dreams. And as Jimmy Chow demonstrated, we need to show patience. Our patience shapes who we become as leaders.
BJ came eager to help. He shared some words of encouragement to the team at the end of the session that revealed his pride in being part of this larger endeavor. Jimmy Chow sat quietly watching it all unfold. His patience and optimism were rewarded!
Show your group how to encourage their teammates. Teach your employees how to apologize when they let a teammate down. Coach your team how to thank others for their help and support. You can tame the multi-cultural butterfly. Leverage diversity to create unity!
Keith Martino is head of CMI, a global consultancy founded in 1999 that customizes leadership and sales development initiatives. Martino is the author of “Expect Leadership“, a series of leadership books – The Executive Edition, in Business, in Engineering, and in Technology. He has also published three sales handbooks, Get Results, Results Now, and “Selling to Americans“. After more than 20 years and numerous awards at FedEx, Xerox and Baxter Healthcare, Martino and his team provide world-class counsel and proven web-based tools that produce consistent results.