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Opinion | Why rebuilding belonging within multicultural teams or clients is a game-changer

This article was originally published by The Newcastle Herald on Tuesday 20th July, 2021.

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Opinion | Why rebuilding belonging within multicultural teams or clients is a game-changer

Dr Elsa Licumba

We all saw the headlines around the world about three English footballers and how they were racially vilified. It was the Euro final and three young footballers missed a penalty.

Consequently, the English team lost the Euro championship to Italy 3-2.

These three young men were racially vilified and the rest of the world responded, including Australia. Some racially insensitive comments were made about their performance at work, on the soccer field, by an Australian media outlet.

One of the players said he would not give trolls the reaction they were looking for. Some celebrities and government officials around the world condemned the event. As for Australia, the headline was removed, updated.

This is a classic example of belonging being disrupted in the workplace.

You may say it was on a soccer field, not a company. But the headline came from a company and was directed at the soccer field, both valid forms of the workplace. You may say it was not in Australia, but the headline came from Australia too.

I am a migrant and someone who specialises in cultural gaps. I help companies rebuild a sense of belonging within their multicultural teams and the multicultural clients they serve. I work with companies to prevent this from happening in the workplace.

In 2008 when I came to Australia from Mozambique, I felt lost – new country, new culture, new norms, and new values. I lost my sense of belonging. I experienced this as an international student and have experienced the same in the workplace at times.

Most of the time it happened, I kept it to myself, which is not ideal. It would not make sense to even bring up the conversation. Other times I had to find my ways of dealing with the issue.

Most of the time it happened, I kept it to myself, which is not ideal. It would not make sense to even bring up the conversation. 

I went through a process and I am much better at dealing with it. I am also in a position now to help others deal with it. I want to prevent this from happening to anyone or company that works with multicultural teams or serves multicultural clients. Would you like to know how to rebuild belonging within your multicultural teams or clients without having to call for extra help?

Here are five effective ways to create life-long change, and rebuild belonging so you can increase collaboration, psychological safety, resilience, and productivity within your multicultural teams or clients. We will do it through a process of instructions. The instructions are applied in partnership with your team.

First, I suggest reading Managing Multicultural Teams by Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, Mary C. Kern (2006 Harvard Business Review), which outlines key challenges of multicultural teams.

Second, identify a cultural conflict or situation you experienced at work, with either your team or clients of multicultural background. If you don’t have one, use the recent case of the three footballers.

Now, break the conflict into small pieces (Brett et al, 2006). Ask yourself: what happened, when, who was involved, why it happened, where, how, and the ramifications of the issue. This should help you recognise the underlying type of cultural conflict or issue.

Third, interact with your team, brainstorm again together, repeat steps one and two and now add the team’s contributions.

BREAKING IT DOWN: Everyone wins at work when employees from diverse backgrounds feel they belong.

Fourth, devise a strategy with your team for each type of problem. For example, for insensitive racial comments, you may require training on racial equity and/or managerial intervention so the team can work around their differences with the team or clients. Next, evaluate each strategy before deciding which one is suitable. Discuss the advantages/disadvantages and possible consequences of each.

Fifth, devise a plan to implement your best strategy, define the outcomes, and how these will be measured. Last, ask your team to write down three reasons why it matters for the team to rebuild belonging within your multicultural teams or clients.

In summary, disrupting belonging within multicultural groups in the workplace happens in three ways: through cultural differences; an added dose of insensitive racial comments, and when managers do nothing, even when they see it.

Look after your multicultural team and you can create a successful workplace where all belong.

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Dr Elsa Licumba is a sessional lecturer at the University of Newcastle and the founder of Freedom to Belong, a Newcastle-based intercultural training service that equips migrants to foster a sense of belonging and supports multicultural business teams.  She has a PhD in Economics and a Masters In Social Change and Development from the University of Newcastle. In 2019 she wrote Freedom to Belong.

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