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Leading culturally diverse teams in the food industry

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As an international food industry quality professional who has worked in different parts of the world, I understand the importance of leadership in working with culturally diverse teams. Until recently, leadership training that was typically available to business school students, human resource departments, and operations groups was not universally available to quality personnel and other key stakeholders in the food industry. In today’s global environment, the food industry recognises that there are opportunities for improvement in the area of cultural diversity in the workplace, and more companies in the industry are providing leadership training for quality professionals. Brand reputation, which comes with high standards of product safety and quality, is critical in the food industry, and a good reputation is built on effective teamwork. Quality professionals must be able to see the “big picture” and lead their teams to common goals that are aligned with the company vision, mission and values. The purpose of this article is to provide guidance to food industry professionals in recognising the importance of leadership in culturally diverse teams.

Whether you are a major food ingredient supplier, a manufacturer, or a co-packer, team leadership is critical, and there are extra challenges and opportunities when working with multicultural or geographically distributed groups. Diversity influences the business and working environment; food industry leaders should consider diversity as an asset rather than as an obstacle or obligation. Remarkable leaders are individuals in an organisation or industry “who [are] exceptionally skilled at motivating, influencing, or enabling you, others, or groups to contribute to the success of the organization or task” [1].

Diversity can be defined as including “all characteristics and experiences that define each of us as individuals” [2]. The concept of diversity has generally focused on characteristics such as culture, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and religion. The definition can also include communication style, work style, sexual orientation, mental and physical abilities, organisational role and level, economic status, values, beliefs, and geographic origin [2].

Diversity in the workplace can provide a number of benefits, including [1]:

  • A more effective workforce
  • A competitive advantage to the business
  • Better customer service
  • Organisational flexibility
  • Receptivity to the needs of clients
  • A source of creativity
  • Better problem solving
  • Efficient resource acquisition
  • Healthy conflict
  • Prevention of “groupthink”

There are a variety of ways to work with issues of diversity in the workplace. Team leaders need to consider the effects of diversity on the group and the ways in which it influences the needs of the business. Leaders must capitalise on the benefits of diversity to help achieve business objectives. Leaders must focus on customers while also fostering confidence, communication, and continual improvement among team members. The leader is in charge of overcoming obstacles and helping each employee to function at maximum capacity [3].

For diverse teams to succeed, trust and mutual respect are required, especially when colleagues see things from different perspectives. Building trust within diverse groups can be challenging, and fostering cultural awareness is imperative. Colleagues should learn about the geography, dialects, cultural values and traditions of each individual’s nation of birth, and team members and leaders should get to know one another on an individual basis [4].

Strategies for fostering multicultural awareness and respect should include the following elements [4]:

  • Identification and consideration of differences among individuals
  • Effective use of goals and constructive feedback
  • Empowerment of employees to take part in decisions on matters that affect them
  • Establishment of links between performance and rewards
  • Support of equity and equality in the system

To encourage workplace diversity in the food industry, the following initiatives can be considered by team leaders [3]:

  • Consider managers responsible for accomplishing diversity in hiring
  • Recruit, support, and mentor minorities
  • Conduct training related to diversity and cross-cultural needs and issues
  • Support employee networking
  • Maintain diversity among business leaders

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

According to psychologist Abraham Maslow (1943), humans strive to meet a hierarchy of five needs, as illustrated in Figure 1. Basic needs are at the bottom of the pyramid, and higher needs are towards the top. As each need is satisfied, the next higher requirement can be addressed. Food industry managers need to understand and respect that employees have a hierarchy of needs; this will promote a healthy work environment and help motivate employees towards greater productivity. Maslow’s hierarchy is a mainstream method for considering individuals’ needs; it includes cultural diversity as a factor in esteem and self-actualisation that helps employees to be engaged and committed to the success of the business [5].

For food industry businesses to hold diversity as a core value, top levels of administration must make this a priority in business strategy and day-to-day decision-making. Activities that are used to promote awareness and appreciation of diversity should be meaningful, not superficial. An organisational approach that genuinely supports diversity will encourage all employees to develop and contribute their unique abilities and skills to the company’s operations and will be free of prejudice based on race, gender, ethnicity, and other perceived differences [3].

Ravi Chermala FIFST, CSci, RFoodSP 

Figure 1: Hierarchy of Needs (Business Case Studies LLP, 2014)



  1. Hoppe, M., & Eckert, R. (2012). Leader effectiveness and culture: The GLOBE study. Center for Creative Leadership. Retrieved from
  2. United States Department of Commerce (USDC). (2001). Best Practices in Achieving Workforce Diversity. Retrieved from
  3. DuBrin, A. (2010). Leadership: Research findings, practice, and skills (6th ed.). Mason, OH: South-Western, Cengage Learning.
  4. Gerush, M. (2010). Best practices: Five Strategies for Leading Diverse, Distributed Teams to Success. Retrieved from
  5. Business Case Studies LLP. (2014). Motivating and engaging employees for better business- A Virgin Media case study. Retrieved from

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