Team leader: Let your team be themselves at work

Everyone is different. It is particularly true if your team members come from different cultures across various civilizations. To share some areas where how your team members can be different from one another and you:  

  • Perception of self-worth 
  • Career aspiration 
  • Motivation at work 
  • Life stage. For example, the needs/priorities of someone (who is in his/her 20s and single) is very different from someone in his/her mid-30s with a family.
  • Business culture in the country where they have been raised and worked 
  • Their working experience.  

A diverse team

I am a big fan of building a diverse team because it is often stronger. Please don’t take my word for it. Take a look at several studies cited in Harvard Business Review “Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter” by David Rock or “Teams Solve Problems Faster When They’re More Cognitively Diverse” by Alison Reynolds and David Lewis. 

Regarding diversity, there are multiple dimensions like gender, cognition, personality, economics, sexual preference/orientation, etc. While extrovert seems to become the “ideal” personality in western society, the book “Quiet: the power of introverts in the world that can’t stop talking” by Susan Cain shares the unique strength of introverts in the workplace as well. I would recommend you read the entire book, as it’s fascinating. Both introverts and extroverts empirically perform well in different contexts and team dynamics. Fortune 500 companies have embraced both personalities equally, and they have made adaptations to concepts like open office to cater to introverted ways of working. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Al Gore, and many others are introverts. So to be a great leader, you don’t need to be an extrovert.  

The Asia Pacific is culturally diverse

I used to mentor a very talented manager named Sophie (not her real name). She progressed quickly in her career and became a people manager at a young age (mid-20s). She struggled with people management a lot at first. She didn’t understand why other team members were not as committed to work as she was or just didn’t do things the way she asked them to. It may come as a surprise, but in many Asian cultures, age still plays an important role. Since Sophie is so young versus other team members, it is a bit hard for other team members to take her seriously or to treat her as their manager.  

Another example is the differences in business cultures between Japan, Australia, and India regarding:

What time they prefer to start work in the morning/stop work at night. 

How they respond to a request from their superior. 

The “meaning” of “yes”: when someone says yes, it can mean acknowledgment of “I hear you” instead of agreement with your suggestion. 

Let them be themselves at work

When you recruit and assemble a diverse team, let them be themselves at work. As long as everyone agrees that behaving well is a prerequisite, being able to be your quirky self at work is a liberating feeling, and it can have a massive impact on work quality and team morale. From personal experience, I have seen the best work from people who feel that they could be themselves. They don’t need to pretend to be someone else. It saves a lot of mental energy, and your team can focus on what they do best. There are several studies from Susan Cain’s book on the positive impact of being able to be yourself at work on the organization’s morale and bottom line. 

On the other hand, the impact of “covering” is staggering. Between 60% to 73% of respondents in “Uncovering talent – A new model for inclusion report” by Kenji Yoshino and Christie Smith say that covering has “somewhat” to “extremely” detrimental impact on their sense of self. Imagine how much happier your team will be if they don’t have to spend energy to “cover” themselves. It is much easier said than done, especially since your company culture has a considerable impact on whether everyone is “expected” to cover. There are unspoken rules, as people observe how each other behaves. I have coached many managers and potential leaders who feel that they need to conform to mainstream behavior to be considered for a leadership position or promotion. So be the change agent, the example that your team members and colleagues can see and follow. 

That’s all from me. Let me know what you think!


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