Multicultural teams are a key feature of global mission, and so too is the conflict and misunderstanding that they can bring! In the past we’ve looked at different aspects of teamwork but today we’re going to look at some different characteristics that we can consciously look to develop in ourselves to help us contribute to the smooth running of the team.
When we think of multi-cultural teams it is often tempting to focus on nationality or heart language, but there are also many other factors that contribute to the cultures that individuals bring into a team, like ecclesiology, socio-economic background, gender, marital status, level of education and generation. These all affect the often-unconscious assumptions people bring to how things should be done, and what is valued.
1) Humility. Many, if not most, cultures bring up their citizens to have national pride. This is only a small step away from a jingoistic belief that we are better than all the rest. Which is patently not true – just look at how every four years the English think this is their year to win the football World Cup when in fact their team usually struggles to get past the first round. Too often European and North American mission workers have been guilty of thinking “West is best” or “White is right”, but other cultures can also fall into the trap of denigrating others. Humility helps us recognise that while our home culture may bring some strengths into the mission field, we have much to learn from both our host culture and our co-workers.
2) Self-awareness. We build on our humility effectively when we understand the extent to which we operate within a culture we have grown up in, which subconsciously affects our values and thought patterns. Armed with self-awareness we are better equipped to understand why somebody else’s choices and preferences annoy us so much, and why ours do the same to them. It helps us to treat people as individuals and not stereotype them according to the culture we see them as belonging to.
3) Inquiry. I am frequently amazed that some mission workers can complain loudly and frequently about the behaviour of others without stopping to inquire what drives that behaviour. For example, when I lived in Africa I heard many (white) mission workers complain that “Africans are lazy”. Anyone who has seen a grain lorry overturn in the bush and seen hundreds of people appear from nowhere and squirrel away tons of spilled maize into bags and chitenges will know that Africans most certainly are not lazy. But those mission workers who think so have probably never tried to align their objectives with those of their employees, or motivate them effectively, with the result that the Africans don’t work hard – for them.
4) Love. It covers a multitude of sins, and should be put on over everything else like an overcoat. With genuine, sacrificial love like Jesus had, we are able to value individuals as Christ-redeemed brothers and sisters, inquire into their cultural norms and help them to feel honoured and valued. Love helps us accept people for who they are, rather than simply trying to correct them for being wrong.
So next time we are tempted to grumble about tensions in our cross-cultural communities, let’s ask ourselves first how much more vibrant they would be if only we were able to let go of our own culture a little bit more.