How to thrive in your multicultural team
By Gédéon Mashauri
My wife said to the Tanzanian shopkeeper, “Nipatie Sukari na Sabuni,” which means “Give me sugar and soap.” He replied by teaching her a lesson, saying “In Tanzania, you don’t command people even if you are buying something. Rather, you should greet the person if he is older than you, saying ‘Shikamoo’ (a greeting of respect to an elder). Then you say, ‘Naomba unipatie Sukari na Sabuni?’ meaning, “Can you please give me sugar and soap?” My wife, who is from the DRC, was thankful he explained this. It made us pause and learn the culture and worldview of Tanzanians.
Simple mistakes like these are easily rectified. More difficult are the relationships between colleagues serving on a multicultural team, and tensions can quickly rise without understanding why or knowing what to do about it.
Differences among Africans
Though African cultures have much in common, it is good to understand that there are cultures within cultures, influenced by tribe and ethnic group, social status, religious backgrounds and colonial heritage. Some ethnic groups in Africa view others either as fully human, less human or not human at all, and this is the root of tribal killing. In order to live together, we must realize we are all human, facing the same problem of SIN, no matter who we think we are and where we come from. Our real identity is well defined by God our creator.
Differences from further afield
The differences between Africans and non-Africans can be wide indeed, which we are well aware of. Westerners differ from Africans, but they also differ from one another, making it difficult to ascertain how to respond in various situations. But it is our responsibility to try to understand and work with our teammates from other continents.
A book called ‘The Culture Map’ describes ways that cultures are different and gives insights as to what questions we can ask when working cross-culturally. (See the article about it here.) The book lists various “scales” of cultural differences. I’ve chosen a few to share .
Who is in charge: low vs. high power distance
In a low power distance society, power is distributed equally. High power distance societies have pronounced inequality in power, and people accept that without question. Some people have power, others don’t. That is the way it is. High power distance cultures tend to value tradition, which keeps society stable and prevents upheavals in power relations. They also tend to be hierarchical, ranking people within society by strict roles. These cultures tend to place little emphasis on individualism, favouring the greater good of the nation over the interests of the individual.
In many African cultures, which are high power distance, people are afraid to disagree with their superiors even if they notice something wrong. And the superior often makes decisions without the subordinate’s participation. I was privileged to work with a boss from a low power distance culture who encouraged me to disagree when I was not comfortable with his decisions. I learned many lessons about servant leadership in the life of this humble servant of God. His advice has helped free me to express my opinion. The motive should be that in God’s Kingdom, we don’t compete with each other; we complement one another, as we all work with the purpose of building up the body of CHRIST.
Our real identity is defined by God, our Creator.
We see examples of both low and high distance leadership in Scripture, and it is important to keep in mind that a younger person, like Moses, can be called into authority over an older person, like Aaron and Miriam. Humility is key (Num. 12).
How to build trust: cognitive trust vs. affective trust
Cognitive trust comes from confidence in a person’s skillset, accomplishments and reliability, knowing that they can perform a task they are trusted with. On the other hand, affective trust involves friends, relatives and colleagues with whom you have a personal bond.
For example, someone building cognitive trust will want to dive right into work after meeting you, feeling this is respectful of your time. They may prefer a quick lunch in order to work further on a project. By contrast, someone building affective trust will arrange a long lunch during which they will not talk about work, but will want to get to know your family and life. To them, this shows respect for your time and for the relationship. The person building cognitive trust may think the long lunch is wasting valuable time and that the other person does not take the work seriously. Meanwhile, the one building affective trust will think the short lunch means that a relationship is not valued and that they are being used just to get a job done.
Direct or Indirect – how to give feedback or disagree
Every culture has different ways of disagreeing. A person from a direct culture might say, “I totally disagree with your decision.” One from an indirect culture would hesitate to say anything, but their subtle body language may express disagreement. These differences can be hurtful if they are not recognized and adapted. It is good to study your colleague and even have a conversation with them about your different styles. Once you know where they are coming from, you can either discuss your differences or simply try to adapt.
The following case studies are real situations I have encountered. I will note that there are cultural variations even within one country, including those from urban vs. rural contexts and from different backgrounds.
Case Study #1: Which culture is ruder?
I lived with Nigerians and Kenyans during my studies in Kenya. Nigerians complained that Kenyans do not greet each other, a simple sign of the African Ubuntu (I am because we are). But a Kenyan friend explained that robbery is so common that Nairobians don’t trust strangers, and therefore are slow to greet.
At the same time, the Kenyans labelled Nigerians as confrontative, expressing their ideas without fear and eagerly taking leadership positions, seemingly to control others. Their behavior may be expressions of cultural differences in how trust is built or in direct vs. indirect communication. I thought it would be wise for the Nigerians to hear of this stereotype and to slow down and consider how to speak to their Kenyan brothers.
Case Study #2: Is time important?
While on a multicultural team with Westerners, I learned that even though someone is your teammate, you don’t just show up to visit them. You should book an appointment and specify how long you will visit, in order to show respect for the use of their time, which is (to them) an irreplaceable asset. Africans do not ask visitors, “How long will you stay?” That implies you did not want him to visit in the first place.
Case Study #3: Confronting vs. saving face
My African team leader shared something one-on-one with his teammate. Later when the team met, the leader spoke differently from what he shared, and the Western teammate confronted him in front of the group. In Africa, you don’t confront the leader either privately or in group.
I learned that Westerners want people to speak their mind and are not intimidated by other’s opinions. African missionaries are not used to confrontation, but on multicultural teams, especially with Westerners, sharing your viewpoint plainly is valued. This can be true between African cultures too. You may be dropping hints of how you feel, but others will never figure it out! You will be left behind in the decision making, and your opinion, which could be critical to the strategy, will never be heard.
In conclusion, the best way to work in a multi-cultural team is first to see others as humans. James 3:9 says, “With the tongue we bless our Lord and Father and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God.” Then pause and spend time to study and understand them. Be intentional to ask cultural questions and try to adjust to show love for one another. Talking is key to understanding. You may find your ministry teammates are very willing, even eager, to discuss cultural differences and ways to work better with one another. Some behaviors can be baptized as negative ethnicity or tribalism, but truthfully, we all suffer from the same root problem of SIN. Communication on multicultural teams should be guided with the realization that our different cultural backgrounds affect how we interpret each other.
Gédéon Mashauri is currently serving with Bush Telegraph Missions in Kenya. He served on two cross-cultural teams in Tanzania and Kenya under Africa Inland Mission. He and his wife, Rachel, are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They have been married for 12 years and have four daughters. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.