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7 Lessons Learned Building a Multicultural Team

Culture
March 24, 2022
Amanda Quintero
Ops Lead
7 Lessons Learned Building a Multicultural Team
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“Gosh, you work at United Colours of Benetton!”, a friend told me recently after a brief explanation about how diverse our team is at Orbit.

The phrase made me laugh. Mostly, because I’ve heard it so many times in my career.

Ever since I was an exchange student in California, back when Britney Spears’ Toxic was at the top of Billboard Hits, and the SoCal telenovela The O.C. was a thing, I’ve gravitated towards multicultural spaces; Model UN back in college, INGOs, international development, multinational commodity trading, and international relations.

At this point, I have an accent no matter which language I speak and often feel like a shapeshifter with a liquid personality. I’m no longer “from” here or there, and I’ve amalgamated traits from several cultures at my convenience.

So, when the prospect of joining Orbit came up I thought it was a natural move. In fact, I knew Josh, Orbit’s CTO, wanted to build a global team, and that the company was intentionally recruiting people with diverse backgrounds. I even highlighted that I could bring some of my international relations experience into the mix.

However, it quickly became evident that working at Orbit was a different ball game. Partly, because I felt empowered to influence the way we were building the company culture.

After a year of experimenting, I want to share some of the lessons we’ve learned, and emphasize how fun and interesting it has been.

Lesson 1: Acknowledge that you’ll face cultural differences

Before joining, I recommended Josh and Patrick to read The Culture Map by Erin Meyer, a book on navigating the boundaries of doing global business with a focus on communication and culture.

I had recently lived through an admittedly painful acquisition whereby a German company absorbed the French partner, and this book helped me understand the sources of friction. I won’t summarize the book here, but I dare say anyone doing global business in this day and age would benefit from reading it.

Reading this book as a team taught us two things:

The concept of high vs low-context cultures

It became evident that Orbit’s gravity centers –the US and Western Europe– are polar opposites when it comes to communication styles.

Western Europe, with thousands of years of common history and etiquette, has a relatively high-context style of communication; things are usually said politely, with implicit subtext. To Americans, this type of comms can feel cryptic.

The US, being a rich melting pot, is a low-context culture where the expectation is for people to be explicit, and spelling things out is appreciated. To Europeans, this resembles overcommunication and wordiness. Stating the obvious, if you will.

Reading together helps build a common vocabulary

One reason why people feel comfortable hiring folks similar to themselves –who come from the same town, school, university– is because they share baseline knowledge, and communication is seamless. They all understand the same references, idioms, connotations, and paradigms.

With The Culture Map, we learned we could bridge most of the language and cultural gaps by building a common vocabulary, creating an intentional and explicit Orbitlore.

That’s when we started Orbit’s book club and made a point in documenting How we communicate, now a key part of the onboarding process.

Even if it feels daunting at first, newcomers usually highlight how much they appreciate clear conventions.

For example, Eric Berry –who recently joined as a Sr. Software Engineer– dropped these lines the other day during a meeting:

Shoutout to those that wrote the team handbook. One page that really reflects us as a company is the “How We Communicate” section. This is the right way to run a company!

We even started putting together a segment on acronyms and words we use a lot, for reference.

Lesson 2: Ratios matter

People feel excluded when they perceive they don’t belong; they are the outlier in comparison to the norm.

Nevertheless, when you intentionally recruit with diversity in mind, no single group outnumbers the rest. We are all part of this mixed group. To give you a sense of where we stand, 5 out of the first 10 employees Orbit ever hired were non-native English speakers, and at the time of writing, for ⅓ of our team, English is a second language.

This immediately puts everyone in a place of being curious, open, and empathic. Everyone is learning something at all times.

Lesson 3: Make the working language explicit

We made two things explicit early on:

English is the working language

That means all work-related comms must be in English. Everyone at Orbit speaks and writes professional-level English.

Setting a clear expectation mitigates the risk of having draft documents or text conversations in multiple languages that can’t be read by everyone in the company.

Low-context communication is the default

This is because, in an async work environment, where most communication is written and read in flex hours, devoid of tone, it is more constructive and effective to strive for clarity.

We advise Orbiters to share context freely and abundantly in all comms.

Lesson 4: Navigating accents as a team

Of all the multicultural places I’ve worked at, Orbit is probably the friendliest for first-timers. Whether it is the first time someone works with a global/multilingual team, or it is their first time working in English. Here is why:

We value written communication

Depending on the role, up to 90% of comms are written. That gives folks the chance to reflect on their word choice, edit and use tools like Grammarly to improve their writing. Also, we recommend everyone to read Everybody Writes by Ann Handley.

We invest in A/V hardware

It’s hard to understand a new accent mediated by poor audio or video. As humans, we know that most communication is non-verbal, so giving everyone access to quality sound and cameras removes friction for all parties.

We pay for language coaches

For folks who need to hone their language skills, Orbit allocates a professional development stipend for language lessons.

Empathy and kindness are core values

We make them explicit in our Team Handbook, and often give shoutouts to folks who act in resonance.  

When it comes to navigating accents, this is how acting with empathy and kindness benefits everyone:

For native speakers, it requires forgiving mistakes, inaccurate word use, and wrong pronunciation. It demands that we become active listeners/readers. In other words, lots of empathy in every interaction.

When you listen/read with empathy, you'll be more likely to succeed in getting work done and also building stronger relationships with your colleagues.

For non-natives, the challenge is patience and self-kindness. Sometimes we’ll make mistakes, or feel like we don’t have the words to express ourselves fully. This can create frustration. A deep breath and a quick google search can go a long way.

When you are kind to yourself while speaking a foreign language, you increase your chances of finding a way to communicate effectively what you’re trying to say.

Lesson 5: Constantly scan for misunderstandings and ways to clarify

I don’t claim to be an expert, but here are a few things I try to keep in mind in multicultural, multilingual spaces:

Know that misunderstandings will occur

It won’t always be as extreme as Bill Murray and Scarlet Johanson in Lost in Translation, but knowing that misunderstandings are always around the corner will help you normalize the situation.

Avoid nationality-based jokes and clichés like the plague

Some people think this type of comment is just humor. In fact, they are an easy way to draw a line between you and the other.

Not only do you risk triggering individual sensitivities, but these comments also work against the overall goal of creating a sense of belonging.

Don’t take words at face value

As skeptical as that may sound, language is only one dimension of the communication interface.

As the receiver of a message, sometimes you’ll face challenges with direct translations that don’t have the same meaning when said in English. This is usually due to a cultural element that is not an explicit part of the message.

For example, in French culture, it is commonly accepted to say “No” directly and upfront. For most Americans, this may feel confrontational or negative. The tension doesn’t derive from the translation itself but from the meaning of the words and how each culture interprets them.

The French person believes they are being kind by showing honesty and establishing clear boundaries or expectations. The American may feel attacked or unnecessarily turned down. Again, go read The Culture Map if you want more concrete examples.

If you find yourself surprised or puzzled, you can ask questions to clarify the subtext or if there is a cultural gap you are unaware of.

Help others to understand you

As the emitter of the message, you want to make sure you have crystalized your idea as much as possible, and you may add cultural context.

For instance, you can use phrases such as:

  • In my country, when someone says X, that usually means Y
  • In my language, we have the following saying…
  • In my language, that word has a different connotation… do you mean to say Z?

Be ready to receive feedback and apologize sincerely

Sooner or later you’ll say something that will not be well received. We all make mistakes; it is part of being human.

Many of us may resort to making up excuses or providing justifications. However, those won’t get us far, and the relationship with our colleagues will suffer.

Simply thank the messenger for bringing the issue to your attention, apologize, and move on. Thanking the messenger recognizes the vulnerability it requires to have difficult conversations.

Lesson 6: Having expats and multilingual folks within the leadership team makes a difference

This may be self-evident, but having folks that have moved countries or speak other languages in positions of leadership makes a difference.

On the one hand, they can do both language and cultural translation, constantly ironing out misunderstandings or cultural gaps. On the other hand, it can remove anxiety for folks who are not 100% fluent in English by providing an alternative channel to express themselves, especially when something challenging is going on. I usually make myself available to play this ambassador/hinge function, but I’m not the only one.

The presence of expats also helps. Moving to another country and learning a new language is a trying experience. In our case, the fact that Josh –who is American and lives in France– plays a key role in Orbit staying mindful of cross-cultural integration.

Lesson 7: Have fun with it

There is a reason why language classrooms are always filled with laughter 😆

Being confronted with a new point of view, or being able to see our own shortcomings with humor is naturally enjoyable and can even pull us back to a childlike version of ourselves. It feels expansive and gives us permission to be silly.

If you want to build and work effectively with diverse and multilingual teams, making room for fun will make the experience enjoyable and enriching for everyone involved!

If you can’t resist the urge to work with a team that values diversity, go check out our open positions!

💫  Orbit is Hiring Engineers in US/EMEA

Orbit helps grow and measure thousands of communities like Kubernetes and CircleCI. We're a remote-first company with a product-driven, empathetic engineering team that enjoys the occasional space pun! Check out our careers page for open opportunities.

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