How countries like the UAE can manage a diverse workforce

Erin Meyer is an American professor at the international business school Insead and programme director for its managing global virtual teams programme. She also is the author of the book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, which was published last year. And she recently visited Insead’s Abu Dhabi campus on International Women’s Day to host a women’s leadership seminar. Here Ms Meyer, a mother of two sons, who has lived in Paris with her French husband for the past 15 years, reveals how a diverse workforce can be managed more effectively.

How is the UAE different from other countries?

The UAE is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. Here the normal workday involves working with individuals from dozens of countries. You don’t have to leave home to see how differently various societies around the world think, lead and get things done.

What are the biggest challenges a leader faces when managing a team comprising several cultures?

There are remarkably different ways of communicating, building trust and even running meetings in different world cultures – and each culture feels they’ve got it right. In today’s globalised economy, we have to learn how to adapt our style – when to speak or stay quiet and when negative feedback is constructive. Such misunderstandings can lead to ineffective teams and demotivated, frustrated employees.

Why is it important to a manager to learn this?

Most managers working across borders have little understanding of how culture impacts their work. In the US, we have this tendency to recap what has been decided in a meeting and then recap it again in a memo – the thinking being that the more you clarify, the more professional it appears. But that’s not true in many countries; a client from Indonesia told me: “When we make decisions verbally, that’s enough for me. If you put it in writing, you don’t trust me”.

What are some tips for getting global teams to disagree agreeably?

With multicultural teams, getting all groups members to express their ideas openly and comfortably can be a challenge. In many cultures – Japan, Thailand, China – publicly disagreeing with a boss or elder is considered disrespectful. One tip is to depersonalise disagreement – instead of asking team members to challenge ideas in a meeting, ask them to send their opinions to a third party beforehand and have that person create a list of anonymous ideas. Another tip is to adjust your language, avoiding “upgraders” like “absolutely” and using “maybe” or “perhaps”, followed by “What do you think?”

Do women tend to fare better or worse in cross-cultural teams?

Women have a particular knack for it. We are used to putting ourselves in others’ shoes, which is the first step to multicultural effectiveness.

How can businesses ensure women reach the highest ranks?

As a young woman I didn’t think much about how my gender impacted my work. But as I get older I can’t ignore that the women executives coming through my classes are a significant minority. I had difficult pregnancies and, as a mother, felt I needed to be home a lot while my children were babies. I believe it is critical for systems to allow women to be active mothers and still have high-level careers (if that’s what they want), so we create a world where we can benefit from diversity instead of accidentally stamping it out.

What have you learnt about culture as an American in Paris?

Stereotypes are deceiving. For example, the French are perceived as arrogant by most other cultures. People don’t smile much at others on the street, which foreigners might interpret as haughty. In reality, once you’ve developed a relationship, they are very warm and emotionally open. In addition, they love to debate and critique. If you are not used to it, it can be very destabilising.

What have you learnt from a cross-cultural marriage?

My husband was raised in France but lived in the US for 16 years; I was raised in the US, but have lived in France 15 years. So we are two peas in a pod.

What language do you use to communicate within your family?

We speak English at home unless we are with Eric’s family, in which case we speak French. The kids go to a regular French school, so they speak only French during the day. It is very exciting to watch your children grow up “in” two languages. Sometimes I watch my children talking to a friend and I think: “My child knows how to speak like that.”

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