Creating successful, happy multi-cultural teams will mean being more open, challenging some of your pre-conceptions and putting in some effort to get to know a bit more about your teammates.

Shireen Chua is the director of Third Culture Solutions, a company that specialises in coaching leaders and teams in inter-cultural intelligence. Born in Malaysia to Chinese parents she’s a Kiwi who has lived in New Zealand for more than 30 years.

“I get the difficulties people have – for me going to visit family in Asia can be a fascinating culture shock for me as some of my behaviours are completely foreign to them,” she says.

Yet in NZ people can make all kinds of assumptions about her because she looks Asian. Inter-Cultural intelligence or CQ – the abbreviation is akin to EQ for emotional intelligence – is described as the ability to create new cultural spaces that facilitate win:win solutions for people by anticipating, correctly interpreting and adjusting to the culturally defined behaviours of others.

Curiosity and cultural agility are some of the keys to being able to anticipate and correctly interpret culturally defined behaviours.

“As a leader but also as a team member, be curious – adopt a curious mindset and be open to differences.

“Be curious enough to observe how people interact, how they react but also be curious enough to try opening up conversations about what they’ve done, where they’ve lived, what it’s like there, their families – all in a respectful way,” she says.

Everyone has a world view influenced by their culture (the learned behaviours and values of their group of people) but also by their experiences.

Shireen uses the cultural iceberg to explain that above the water’s surface is the observable culture (behaviours) but hidden below are your individual experiences, family situations, age, values, beliefs that drive behaviours – all which impact how we relate to and interact with each other.

As well as understanding more about the cultural aspects of team mates it’s important to understand more about yourself from the cultural point of view too.

“We don’t often see things as they are – we see things as we are. We have lenses through which we see the world.

“We’ve put our own spin on things – we make assumptions and our brain goes straight to interpretation rather than seeing the data, the plain facts.”

To help explain how people from different cultures can view things differently, Shireen says there is a three colour (3C) or lens theory. They’re the lenses people look at the world through and use to form their world views, she says.

  • Innocence versus guilt (IG) – wanting to do what’s right, issues can be seen as black and white, agreements are formally noted, contracts are used.
  • Honour versus shame (HS) – respect is important, our actions are to honour and respect the relationships and the community. (This is the main worldview in collective cultures).
  • Power versus fear (PF) – refers to status and hierarchy, where behaviour is driven by aligning with the right people as important to success.

Shireen says every culture will have a mix of all three but often one or two will dominate.

“There’s a lot of depth to this too, though – it’s not just ethnically diversified, it can be generational too.

“The ‘boomer’ generation may be more inclined to have a IG lens of doing what’s right but the younger generation who often seek respect (HS) wants to be empowered.”

Someone may not look at you while speaking for instance and you interpret that as disrespectful when in fact in their culture it’s the complete opposite.

“As a manager of people, work on creating an environment where each culture can feel safe and happy.

“You may need to be more flexible in how you operate to accommodate those with other world views.

“It’s the art of compromise and negotiation. If people of a red culture have to work with people of a blue culture you have to work in a purple space,” she says.

“That doesn’t mean you have to become purple – you need to retain who you are but all of you learn to operate in a way that accommodates each other.”


  • Overcoming language barriers can be a big hurdle so speak slowly, ask people to reframe what you have said or if you’re the one who doesn’t quite understand, reframe the question or statement back to them.
  • Avoid using jargon but if you’re going to use it, teach it first.
  • Use visual cues. Most people have better reading than listening skills when it comes to picking up what’s being said in your second language so use txts or chat apps such as Messenger or WhatsApp so instructions are in a written form.
  • Overall, Shireen says aim to look for the common ground rather than focusing on the differences. “Look at what brings us together.”
  • Also be wary of stereotyping people. People are people no matter where they’re from or what their culture is and there will be different personality types within ethnic groups.

In today’s culturally diverse farms and communities, it’s now no longer optional to work in culturally diverse teams. Developing intercultural teams can be hard and frustrating, but it’s also rich and rewarding in the long term if you see it as a learning journey.