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Developing effective multicultural leadership teams 

It's important to understand the four areas where misunderstandings can occur when people of differing cultural backgrounds work together. By Malcolm Patten


Leading a Multicultural ChurchOne of the significant challenges for the leaders of churches in multicultural contexts is how to develop effective diverse leadership teams. Diverse teams are an important part of a strategy to overcome prejudice and maximise potential. However, even with a wholehearted commitment to do this, it can be very difficult to achieve.
One person who can help unpack some of the difficulties is Dutch social psychologist, Geert Hofstede. He has devoted his career in a large multinational computer company to an investigation of national cultural differences. He found that there were four areas where problems and misunderstandings can occur when people of differing cultural backgrounds were working together.

Put simply these are:


  • How people relate to those in authority;

  • How people relate to one another;

  • How people perceive the roles of men and women;

  • How people deal with conflict. 


How people relate to authority

Hofstede noticed that in some cultures bosses and their subordinates worked in a collaborative style, where in others, subordinates were much more likely to respect their bosses wishes regardless of whether they thought they were right or not. For some, to contradict your boss was simply helping to refine a better approach, whereas for others, contradicting your boss was tantamount to treason.

It is not difficult to see how this can create problems in a church leaders’ meeting. Offering criticism may be perceived as being helpful or disloyal depending on your cultural worldview. Developing the ability for all members of the team to offer constructive criticism, but within an atmosphere of mutual respect, is a necessary skill for the pastor of a multicultural church.

How people relate to one another

Hofstede identified two different approaches, one in which a sense of community is all important and one in which the individual is all important. In church life these differences can express themselves in the understanding of church itself. British people often see church as an organisation that needs to be run well, whereas those from cultures where a sense of community is of greater importance will see church as a family where everyone has responsibility for one another.

So if a British person feels let down by his or her church it is seen as a failure of the system (‘we need to organise our pastoral care more effectively’), whereas if a person from a communal culture feels let down it will be more personal (‘where were you when I needed you?’).

A couple having marital problems or, as parents, struggling with the behaviour of a child may, in a communal culture, expect their church leader or a trusted uncle to be involved in helping with the situation. In an individualist culture others looking on may feel that it is best not to get involved, and that the couple need to work things out for themselves.

How people perceive the roles of men and women

Its fascinating to note that Hofstede found Britain to be one of the more macho cultures with more clearly defined roles for men and women than, say, some West African nations. Though our surprise is only because of our stereotypes - in reality there are many West African-led churches whose pastors are women and the wives of male African pastors are often held in much higher regard than a white British pastor’s wife may ever be. British female pastors may well applaud Hofstede’s research.

Also, given the fact that West African cultures tend towards being more communal, male pastors and heads of family are likely to play a benevolent role in the community, enabling people to be cared and provided for, their children encouraged into university and wayward young people mentored in a way that white British church leaders rarely do. Leading a multicultural church will inevitably lead to a sharing and interchangeability of roles within church life to ensure the optimisation of gifts and potential for the benefit of everyone, and for the British church, the presence of those from differing cultural backgrounds will aid this transition.

How people deal with conflict           

British people cope well with uncertainty and are the world experts at putting difficult decisions off to another day to avoid conflict. Except that they aren’t really coping all that well at all. Rather they are burying their anxiety and allowing it to fester within them (driving their blood pressures relentlessly high) or within their communities (waiting for a day when it will all spill out in frustration).

In contrast, some cultures prefer to bring all of their anxieties to the surface, often with hand gestures, raised voices and pounding of tables. When the situation is resolved, there is no falling out; friendships continue as if nothing had happened and uncertainty has been avoided. Again it is not difficult to see how, depending on your cultural worldview, different people will take different approaches as to how conflict should be resolved, and a British ‘kick it into the long grass’ approach may well frustrate those who want to argue it out and come to a conclusion no matter how long it takes.   

Hofstede’s analysis of cultures is not perfect, but it enables a church leader to understand how and why people from different ethnic backgrounds differ in their approach. It helps us to identify potential conflicts and develop strategies to avoid, overcome or grow through such threats to the well-being of the committee or team. In short, it can help us build effective multicultural leadership teams.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Patten is Senior Pastor of Blackhorse Road Baptist Church in Walthamstow, east London, and was previously a minister of churches in Tottenham and Croydon. His doctoral thesis was based on qualitative research into a multicultural church.

He is the author of Leading a Multicultural Church (SPCK), from which this extract is drawn.


Baptist Times, 21/02/2017
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