When Diversity Leads to Conflict: Dealing with a Multicultural Team

Decision making is a key process in CISV programmes. At every step of a programme, your group of leaders and staff will have to make decisions for the group. What activity is needed by the group? Should we change bed time? Which topic should we discuss?

Decision making can be tricky and the diversity of a multicultural group can make it even trickier.

Diversity can be a tough topic in CISV when it comes to habits and cultures that live together for a few weeks. Here are examples of a few situations that are the result of working in a multicultural team and how to avoid them sometimes, deal with them most of the times, and always learn something from them.

The following paragraphs will look at specific issues which help to understand different dimensions of multiculturality, identify yourself in them, and think about ways to work with people, within CISV, who are different. There are many other dimensions to multiculturality. We just wish to provide you with a sample and some tips!

Time management

Time management is often described as the first source of conflict in a CISV camp. From day one, you will have to decide on a schedule for the group of participants and leaders to follow. This schedule will shape your days. But respecting a schedule means different things in different cultures.

A famous researcher, Edward Hall, described the concept of time according to cultural specificities: basically, some cultures consider that arriving 5 minutes late is rude, and some other think it is normal and acceptable to arrive 15 or even 30 minutes later that the meeting time.

In working together, some people will want to organize and structure their time in a very practical way, whilst others are willing to work on several projects at a time, switching back-and-forth between projects.

Working with different concepts of time is a tricky exercise. Here are some tips to manage it as efficiently as possible:

  • Have time slots instead of fixed times: because it can be hard to stick to a very precise schedule, having time slots can help. This means that an activity, for example, should start and end within a certain period of time, which allows flexibility.
  • Make a challenge out of time management: you don’t want to be the time police! So maybe, when you identify that certain cultures are struggling to respect a schedule, make a challenge out of it – the most punctual person gets to facilitate the leaders meeting or wins something special or gets to run the energizer. You can also choose one leader to be the time keeper each day! Encourage all participants to accept the challenge and play along.
  • Have fixed working times and always communicate them: activity planning often occurs in the evening, between activities, and during free time. It can be hard to manage! Make sure to set meetings with your teammates so no one feels left out.
  • Communication and team cohesion: If you cannot be flexible, for example, with mealtimes, flagtimes, or lullabies, make sure that everyone understands the importance of those key moments to get a smooth rhythm through the day or for the group cohesion for instance.

Demonstration of emotions

You already know that (or will experience it soon), CISV programmes are a place where you can experience a lot of intense emotions. This can be due to the fast pace of the experience, non-stop activities, living together 24/7, or being tired. You may experience strong emotions that you have never had before. Some people may be ready for and embrace this intense melting pot of feelings. However, it is important to consider that showing emotions, and behaving accordingly, is not the same for everybody. This can lead to misunderstanding, conflict, or a feeling of discomfort in a group.

For example, in some cultures, it is highly inappropriate to express feelings in public, whereas in others, it is totally acceptable and considered as a sign of trust.

Here are several ways to behave when you feel like people are not ready or willing to share their emotions, or if, on the opposite, their emotionality is too overwhelming for you:

  • Make space for people to express their feelings in their own way: for example, during leaders meetings, it is important to avoid frustration and to have a clear view of the group’s feeling. A good way to do that is to have a “Circle of feelings”, by rating the intensity of a feeling on a scale of 1 to 5 with your fingers. Only people who want to can then express themselves.
  • Be observant and ask questions: in the first days of your programme, you will see some people hugging after a few hours or being very expressive. It is important to remember some people may take some time to get a certain point of intimacy, or maybe they don’t want to get there at all. Remember to be observant, comprehending, and ask before hugging someone, even in a CISV context!
  • Use images and body language: if you are the kind of person who doesn’t express their feelings in a very explicit way, be conscious that it can be tricky for others to understand how you are feeling. A good way to express yourself without feeling uncomfortable can be drawings, mind maps, or images (scales, post its) to position yourself on an “emotion scale” without being too expressive.

Managing an international group of people within CISV

There are a lot of other dimensions that influence the way people from different cultures work together: individualism or collectivism, space management, conception of hierarchy, management styles, crisis management, and more. All of these aspects of our culture is what make us who we are as global citizens and as people with different cultures and backgrounds.

The main tip on how to best appreciate those dimensions is to learn from them.

Stepping out of your comfort zone or finding smooth and constructive ways to teach the group a new way of working together will not only make the group more efficient, but will also be an infinite resource for everybody to learn from. Maybe, you will use some of those different ways of working together in your future CISV camps or even in your academic or professional life. No doubt that you will learn a lot about yourself as well.

If you have questions regarding culture shock and understanding different cultures in international working groups, don’t hesitate to reach us at diversity@cisv.org !

Joanne Mary and the Diversity Campaign Team.

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