The UAE is home to more than 200 nationalities; it is common to see people coming from 20 or 50 different cultures working on the same floor. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Workplaces in the Middle East are among the most diverse in the world. The UAE, in particular, is home to more than 200 nationalities and it is common to see people coming from 20 or 50 different cultures working on the same floor.

While a diverse workforce presents some advantages to an organisation, it can give rise to certain issues such as a language barrier, culture clashes and differences of opinion, which can affect teamwork and overall business performance.

It is therefore crucial that companies start rethinking their practices and investing in effective “multicultural leaders”.

Leverage diversity

Adam Kingl, director of learning solutions for executive education at London Business School, said multinationals should try to select, hire or develop managers who know how to leverage diversity and engage employees of different racial backgrounds to achieve outstanding results.

Expatriates from different cultures form a major part of the UAE’s labour force, constituting about 80 per cent of the population. Their diverse experience and expertise have contributed to the success of many businesses not just in the UAE but in other countries in the Middle East.

“Certainly, issues that multinational organisations face are related to whether they wish and can create an organisational culture that helps to engage and refine people’s behaviour in a way that advances the company’s internal mission and brand,” Kingl said.

“In other words, I think it’s more important in terms of alignment and assimilation to think about what is unique and idiosyncratic to the organisation. What makes this company tick and how do we have to work with each other to achieve that?

“So, if we not only create an organisational culture, but help each individual to envision what their best self is within that organisational context, then we are de facto bringing them together into an organisation.”

Cross-cultural leadership

But the key to achieve these is to ensure company managers possess effective “cross-cultural” leadership skills. In an article he wrote for the London Business School, Kingl describes multicultural leaders as “cosmopolitan and worldly” who have “acquired the cultural sensitivity necessary to bridge cultures and are able to conduct business effectively across national borders”.

Kingly said such leaders are “in short supply” even in this region and it is high time the focus is shifted towards recruiting or developing the right manager. When conducting interviews with a potential employee, specific questions should be asked in order to establish whether or not the applicant can be effective in managing a heterogeneous team.

Recruiters should also be specific when getting background information from an applicant’s former colleagues or previous employers.

“Ask explicitly from the person in question and former colleagues,” Kingl said.

“Did they manage people who approach problems differently? Did they shut down the opinion of decent? How did they lead discussions and brainstorming sessions? Did they move quickly to an answer or did they pull out different answers?”

360-degree feedback

To find out if there are employees within the organisation who can be potential multicultural leaders, doing a 360-degree survey is always the best approach. “The 360-degree feedback has always been useful because that’s anonymous and again, it is important to ask questions explicitly,” Kingl said.

When it comes to related issues like language barrier, companies can implement programmes geared towards improving communication among team members. A great approach is to determine the dominant language within the organisation and then train the rest of the team to speak that.

Language lessons, besides training in decision making and implementing strategies, should therefore be assimilated into a company’s talent development efforts.