Working in a Multi-Cultural Team – The We Versus You Mentality

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We hear the term “globalized” a lot these days. It’s true that in many parts of the world, we work, study, live and socialize with people from countries and cultures other than our own.

Benefits and challenges abound in these relationships, and it’s important for us to learn how to interact well with one another.

Josh and I work as missionaries in Ukraine. We’re part of a leadership team including both Ukrainians and Americans, and at times we’ve also served with people from other countries. We often talk about how we can deepen our relationships and work more efficiently together.

Cultural differences can lead to growth and a greater understanding of one another. But if handled poorly, they can also lead to conflicts.

Lately, Josh and I have been discussing and praying about one challenge of working in a multi-cultural team: the “we” versus “you” mentality.

What do I mean by this?

It’s a mentality that can be demonstrated by anyone in the team, regardless of their culture. I’ve heard Americans who live in foreign countries insist that some American habit or practice is THE way to do things, without considering the existing culture of that place. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself at times, but it’s wrong.

But members of the local culture can also take part in this mentality by dismissing ideas, because they are foreign or “not cultural.” For example, Josh and I, as foreigners in Ukraine, have heard phrases like, “That’s not the way we do things here,” or “That’s not very Ukrainian.”

It’s not wrong to point out cultural challenges. My concern is that these words and attitudes on both sides can create the “we” versus “you” mentality. In other words, they can threaten the unity of a multi-cultural team, creating sides, instead of a single group working in harmony toward common goals. `

As Josh and I seek God’s direction in this area, some principles have come to our hearts that we believe are important tools in building an effective and unified team.

1. Missionaries are not called to change a culture.

Some missionaries spread the Gospel through church planting; others lead building projects, set up schools, help with disaster relief, and much more. The goals are varied, but ultimately, I don’t believe a foreign missionary is called to change another nation’s culture. And why would we want to?

Each culture is uniquely beautiful, reflecting the history, arts, and language of a specific group of people. Some ideas or practices may seem strange to a foreigner, but often, when considered in cultural context, they make perfect sense.

I do believe each culture has both strengths and weaknesses, but that doesn’t mean anyone, missionary especially, should try to force changes. Instead, we should seek to adapt, learn and grow in the culture where we live and serve.

2. A Foreign Idea is not Always a Bad One.

Team members serving in their own country can consider ideas that don’t fit their typical culture. When a foreigner presents an idea, it may seem strange. It might be different than normal practices. And it very well might not work. But how do we know unless we consider it?

Rather than responding quickly with cultural objections, a multi-cultural team should play out an idea and consider both sides. Sometimes we should reject the idea; sometimes we should try it and see if it works.

I don’t believe missionaries should reject their host country’s culture because it’s different than their own. But I also don’t believe that all foreign ideas are wrong or ineffective. And for a team to function in a healthy manner, it’s imperative for both foreigners and locals to hear each other out and demonstrate respect toward each other’s suggestions.

3. It’s Not What’s Cultural. It’s What’s Biblical.

For Christian teams, the ultimate question is: what does the Bible say?

The Bible does not give step-by-step instructions for every aspect of life and leadership. In these gray areas, we’re called to follow the overall Biblical principles and the Holy Spirit’s guidance. I believe it’s important to consider culture in these areas; what works best here?

But if the Bible gives specific guidelines, then God’s Word, and no culture, should be the deciding factor. I may sound harsh, but in these areas, it’s not important if a practice is American, Ukrainian, Nigerian, or any other culture’s. We should follow because it’s what God commands.

My clearest example of this is in matters of marriage and parenting. In Ukraine, I have at times counseled people with family challenges and offered practical suggestions on changes they could make. My suggestions were based 100% on Biblical guidelines for family relationships. More than once, the individuals responded, “Well, that’s an American thing. We don’t do that here.”

I took that to heart, considered it, but came back with the same conclusion: maybe this is not a common Ukrainian practice, but it’s a Biblical practice. So it doesn’t matter whether we do this in America or anywhere else. The important thing is to follow God’s Word.

Conclusion

Working in multi-cultural teams is a rich experience. We have the opportunity to grow together, learn from each other, and overcome cultural differences. Respect, respect, respect. I can’t say that enough: we must respect one another. And when we do, it unites us and strengthens us to work towards the goals we are pursuing.

 

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