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How can multicultural individuals contribute to teams?

Multicultural individuals can be a great asset to teams that are culturally diverse, but this comes with some challenges.
STACEY FITZSIMMONS: So it turns out that a lot of what you’ve been learning about the benefits of diverse teams can also be applied to individuals. And there’s two benefits, in particular, that I think the student in this course will find interesting. The first one is a practical benefit where, as you all know, when you have a diverse team, sometimes there’s people who have a hard time connecting to each other. Maybe, there’s language differences or cultural differences. And putting multicultural individuals on those teams tend to be a really great benefit to connect people.
For example, I ran a study in a health care organisation where they found that even though they had professional translators on staff, that often, the nurses and the other administrators at the hospital spoke multiple languages because they, themselves, were multicultural. And it helped them a lot in connecting to patients and their families who would come in themselves speak languages other than English. They could translate things, really short things on the fly and help connect people, made a health experience a lot less scary for people coming in. The other benefit is more about the way individuals think.
It turns out that multicultural individuals think about things in more creative and more complex ways when the task has something to do with the cultures or international.
There’s two things that have emerged in research about multicultural employees. The first one is related to identity, and the second one is related to work and the quantity of work. So the first one says that a lot of people who are multicultural describe it as an experience that’s really challenging, right? So for example, you might hear people say, I don’t know who I am. I don’t know where I belong. And as a result, a lot of monocultural individuals may not realise how important it is to explicitly welcome people and make sure that they feel like they do belong. I interviewed a woman a few years back who is an Arab, an Arab-American police officer near Detroit.
So Detroit’s in the United States and has a large Arab population, and she was hired as part of this initiative where they are trying to get more Arab police officers to better reflect the population. But soon after, she was hired, she recognised that she wasn’t being accepted for the whole of who she was by her colleagues. And so she ended up choosing, at that time, to do what she needs to do to fit in, meaning that she actually stopped wearing the hijab at that point. Up until that point, she’d been wearing the hijab. She invited the guys over for barbecues and football and baseball in the backyard.
And every time they asked her about things related to Arab culture or the Middle East, she would deflect it. She tried to minimise that part of her identity in an effort to present herself as all-American, and unfortunately that worked, and she moved her way up. Now, she also happens to be one of the most brilliant people I know. So that’s really why she moved up in the police force. But once she got into a position of power, at that point, she took her team to her, and she told them that she was going to start wearing the hijab again because this was an authentic part of who she was, and it was really important to her.
And at that point, finally, the police force was able to benefit from her multicultural background, meaning that she was able to advise them at that point on better relationships with the Arab population and locally on how they could be more culturally sensitive, things like this, that, up until that point, they hadn’t really benefited from her multicultural background. So what they said about working with multicultural individuals on a team is that we have to be aware that people are often grap– people who are multicultural are often grappling with these big questions of, who am I? And therefore, it’s even more imperative that we explicitly welcome people for their whole selves, all of who they are and not just the local identity.
People who are multicultural, as we’ve already discussed in the benefits, they’re really useful to help connect people across cultures. The challenge is when that multicultural individuals are expected to do this on top of their regular work, and especially when this can become a real burden. We have to be really cautious if we’re asking multicultural individuals to do this work, to do cultural translation work or brokering or connecting work that we look carefully at how much time this is taking and whether they need other tasks taken away in order to give them the time and the space to do that work.

Multicultural individuals can be a great asset to teams that are culturally diverse, but this comes with some challenges.

In this video, hear from expert Associate Professor Stacey Fitzsimmons from University of Victoria, Canada as she describes how multicultural individuals contribute to teams.

Bridging and integrating

As Stacey discuses in the video, multicultural individuals can play an important role in diverse teams.

Multicultural individuals can help explain the behaviour of fellow team members and prevent cultural misunderstandings from occurring, particularly if they have culture and language skills relevant to the cultures on the team.

Research has shown that multicultural individuals are generally more mindful of cultural influences, which may help them to play a bridging role.

Multicultural individuals can also help team members to integrate their diverse knowledge and ideas to arrive at a more creative outcome.

Providing a different perspective

Another advantage multicultural individuals can offer teams is their unique perspective.

They tend to develop ways of thinking about culture that are more complex than monocultural individuals.

Because multicultural individuals are better able to think through different perspectives and are less likely to conform to a particular cultural viewpoint, having a multicultural team member may help safeguard against groupthink.

To get the most out of multicultural individuals in your team, consider what roles or tasks will maximise their ability to utilise their multicultural knowledge and skills.

Your task

Watch the video to hear Dr Stacey Fitzsimmons discuss multicultural individuals. Do any of her stories resonate with you?

Share your perspectives or similar experiences of being multicultural or working with others who are multicultural in the comments.

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Leading Culturally Diverse Teams in the Workplace

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