Blog: Thursday, 17 March 2016

Multicultural teams are double-edged swords. Combining knowledge and experiences from different cultures can be extremely powerful in problem solving. On the other hand, negative biases towards team members with a different cultural background can undermine team spirit and harm performance. In her PhD research, Katja Raithel from Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) found that foreign leaders are better equipped to build bridges in multicultural teams and can increase team performance. But given enough time, local leaders can learn these skills too.

Katja Raithel assumed that their own experience of working in a foreign country would make managers better equipped to understand and manage team processes in multicultural teams. After surveying 66 teams with members from diverse cultural backgrounds, her results indeed show that teams with foreign managers felt they put in more effort and are better at completing their work on time. They also reported to be better at finding novel ways to get the job done and saw themselves as more effective in general.

The longer a local leader held their position in a multicultural team, the better the team would perform, she found.

Local leaders

Raithel’s results also show that for foreign leaders managing multicultural teams, it does not matter how long they have been on the job. Their experiences have given them a head start in dealing with other cultures. When looking at local leaders, she found that the experience of leading a culturally diverse team could serve as an international experience in itself. The longer a local leader held their position in a multicultural team, the better the team would perform, she found.


These results show that companies need to be patient with multicultural teams, especially if the leader is local, says Raithel. It takes time to tap into the advantages that working with a culturally diverse team brings. Since international experience proves to be so important, the results of her study also indicate that companies might do well to create international career opportunities for their employees. Also, foreign leaders should be allowed to teach their local colleagues about cross-cultural leadership challenges, she concludes.

Dr. Katja Raithel

Group Head of Diversity, Inclusion & Wellbeing

Zurich Insurance

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