Managing Multicultural Teams
When a major international software devel- oper needed to produce a new product quickly, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the United States. From the start the team members could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The Americans thought the work could be done in two to three weeks; the Indi- ans predicted it would take two to three months. As time went on, the Indian team members proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production process, which the Ameri- can team members would ﬁnd out about only when work was due to be passed to them. Such conﬂicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this case they arose from cultural differ- ences. As tensions mounted, conﬂict over de- livery dates and feedback became personal, disrupting team members’ communication about even mundane issues. The project manager decided he had to intervene—with the result that both the American and the Indian team members came to rely on him for direction regarding minute operational
details that the team should have been able to handle itself. The manager became so bogged down by quotidian issues that the project ca- reened hopelessly off even the most pessimis- tic schedule—and the team never learned to work together effectively.
Multicultural teams often generate frus- trating management dilemmas. Cultural dif- ferences can create substantial obstacles to effective teamwork—but these may be sub- tle and difﬁcult to recognize until signiﬁcant damage has already been done. As in the case above, which the manager involved told us about, managers may create more prob- lems than they resolve by intervening. The challenge in managing multicultural teams effectively is to recognize underlying cul- tural causes of conﬂict, and to intervene in ways that both get the team back on track and empower its members to deal with future challenges themselves.
We interviewed managers and members of multicultural teams from all over the world. These interviews, combined with our deep research on dispute resolution and teamwork, led us to conclude that the wrong kind of man- agerial intervention may sideline valuable members who should be participating or, worse, create resistance, resulting in poor team performance. We’re not talking here about re- specting differing national standards for doing business, such as accounting practices. We’re referring to day-to-day working problems among team members that can keep multicul- tural teams from realizing the very gains they were set up to harvest, such as knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service, and 24-HOUR work rotations.
The good news is that cultural challenges are manageable if managers and team mem- bers choose the right strategy and avoid imposing single-culture-based approaches on multicultural situations.
People tend to assume that challenges on mul- ticultural teams arise from differing styles of communication. But this is only one of the four categories that, according to our research, can create barriers to a team’s ultimate suc- cess. These categories are direct versus indi- rect communication; trouble with accents and ﬂuency; differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conﬂicting norms for decision making.
Direct versus indirect communication. Communication in Western cultures is typi- cally direct and explicit. The meaning is on the surface, and a listener doesn’t have to know much about the context or the speaker to interpret it. This is not true in many other cultures, where meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented. For example, Western negotiators get crucial information about the other party’s preferences and prior- ities by asking direct questions, such as “Do you prefer option A or option B?” In cultures that use indirect communication, negotiators may have to infer preferences and priorities from changes—or the lack of them—in the other party’s settlement proposal. In cross- cultural negotiations, the non-Westerner can understand the direct communications of the Westerner, but the Westerner has difﬁculty understanding the indirect communications of the non-Westerner.
An American manager who was leading a project to build an interface for a U.S. and
Japanese customer-data system explained the problems her team was having this way: “In Japan, they want to talk and discuss. Then we take a break and they talk within the organi- zation. They want to make sure that there’s harmony in the rest of the organization. One of the hardest lessons for me was when I thought they were saying yes but they just meant ‘I’m listening to you.’”
The differences between direct and indirect communication can cause serious damage to relationships when team projects run into problems. When the American manager quoted above discovered that several ﬂaws in the system would signiﬁcantly disrupt com- pany operations, she pointed this out in an e-mail to her American boss and the Japanese team members. Her boss appreciated the direct warnings; her Japanese colleagues were embarrassed, because she had violated their norms for uncovering and discussing prob- lems. Their reaction was to provide her with less access to the people and information she needed to monitor progress. They would probably have responded better if she had pointed out the problems indirectly—for example, by asking them what would happen if a certain part of the system was not func- tioning properly, even though she knew full well that it was malfunctioning and also what the implications were.
As our research indicates is so often true, communication challenges create barriers to effective teamwork by reducing information sharing, creating interpersonal conﬂict, or both. In Japan, a typical response to direct confrontation is to isolate the norm violator. This American manager was isolated not just socially but also physically. She told us, “They literally put my ofﬁce in a storage room, where I had desks stacked from ﬂoor to ceil- ing and I was the only person there. So they totally isolated me, which was a pretty loud signal to me that I was not a part of the inside circle and that they would communicate with me only as needed.”
Her direct approach had been intended to solve a problem, and in one sense, it did, be- cause her project was launched problem- free. But her norm violations exacerbated the challenges of working with her Japanese colleagues and limited her ability to uncover any other problems that might have derailed the project later on.
Trouble with accents and ﬂuency. Although the language of international business is En- glish, misunderstandings or deep frustration may occur because of nonnative speakers’ accents, lack of ﬂuency, or problems with trans- lation or usage. These may also inﬂuence perceptions of status or competence.
For example, a Latin American member of a multicultural consulting team lamented, “Many times I felt that because of the lan- guage difference, I didn’t have the words to say some things that I was thinking. I noticed that when I went to these interviews with the U.S. guy, he would tend to lead the interviews, which was understandable but also disappoint- ing, because we are at the same level. I had very good questions, but he would take the lead.”
When we interviewed an American mem- ber of a U.S.-Japanese team that was assessing the potential expansion of a U.S. retail chain into Japan, she described one American team- mate this way: “He was not interested in the Japanese consultants’ feedback and felt that because they weren’t as ﬂuent as he was, they weren’t intelligent enough and, therefore, could add no value.” The team member de- scribed was responsible for assessing one as- pect of the feasibility of expansion into Japan. Without input from the Japanese experts, he risked overestimating opportunities and underestimating challenges.
Nonﬂuent team members may well be the most expert on the team, but their difﬁculty communicating knowledge makes it hard for the team to recognize and utilize their ex- pertise. If teammates become frustrated or impatient with a lack of ﬂuency, interper- sonal conﬂicts can arise. Nonnative speakers may become less motivated to contribute, or anxious about their performance evaluations and future career prospects. The organiza- tion as a whole pays a greater price: Its invest- ment in a multicultural team fails to pay off.
Some teams, we learned, use language dif- ferences to resolve (rather than create) ten- sions. A team of U.S. and Latin American buyers was negotiating with a team from a Korean supplier. The negotiations took place in Korea, but the discussions were conducted in English. Frequently the Koreans would caucus at the table by speaking Korean. The buyers, frustrated, would respond by appear- ing to caucus in Spanish—though they
discussed only inconsequential current events and sports, in case any of the Koreans spoke Spanish. Members of the team who didn’t speak Spanish pretended to participate, to the great amusement of their teammates. This approach proved effective: It conveyed to the Koreans in an appropriately indirect way that their caucuses in Korean were frustrating and annoying to the other side. As a result, both teams cut back on sidebar conversations. Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. A challenge inherent in multicul- tural teamwork is that by design, teams have a rather ﬂat structure. But team members from some cultures, in which people are treated differently according to their status in an organization, are uncomfortable on ﬂat teams. If they defer to higher-status team members, their behavior will be seen as ap- propriate when most of the team comes from a hierarchical culture; but they may damage their stature and credibility—and even face humiliation—if most of the team comes from
an egalitarian culture.
One manager of Mexican heritage, who was working on a credit and underwriting team for a bank, told us, “In Mexican culture, you’re always supposed to be humble. So whether you understand something or not, you’re sup- posed to put it in the form of a question. You have to keep it open-ended, out of respect. I think that actually worked against me, be- cause the Americans thought I really didn’t know what I was talking about. So it made me feel like they thought I was wavering on my answer.”
When, as a result of differing cultural norms, team members believe they’ve been treated disrespectfully, the whole project can blow up. In another Korean-U.S. negotiation, the American members of a due diligence team were having difﬁculty getting informa- tion from their Korean counterparts, so they complained directly to higher-level Korean management, nearly wrecking the deal. The higher-level managers were offended because hierarchy is strictly adhered to in Korean or- ganizations and culture. It should have been their own lower-level people, not the U.S. team members, who came to them with a problem. And the Korean team members were mortiﬁed that their bosses had been involved before they themselves could brief them. The crisis was resolved only when high-level U.S. managers made a trip to Korea, conveying appropriate respect for their Korean counterparts.
Conﬂicting norms for decision making. Cultures differ enormously when it comes to decision making—particularly, how quickly decisions should be made and how much analysis is required beforehand. Not surpris- ingly, U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and with relatively little analysis by comparison with managers from other countries.
A Brazilian manager at an American com- pany who was negotiating to buy Korean prod- ucts destined for Latin America told us, “On the ﬁrst day, we agreed on three points, and on the second day, the U.S.-Spanish side wanted to start with point four. But the Korean side wanted to go back and rediscuss points one through three. My boss almost had an attack.”
What U.S. team members learn from an ex- perience like this is that the American way simply cannot be imposed on other cultures. Managers from other cultures may, for exam- ple, decline to share information until they understand the full scope of a project. But they have learned that they can’t simply ig- nore the desire of their American counter- parts to make decisions quickly. What to do? The best solution seems to be to make minor concessions on process—to learn to adjust to and even respect another approach to deci- sion making. For example, American manag- ers have learned to keep their impatient bosses away from team meetings and give them frequent if brief updates. A comparable lesson for managers from other cultures is to be explicit about what they need—saying, for example, “We have to see the big picture before we talk details.”
The most successful teams and managers we interviewed used four strategies for dealing with these challenges: adaptation (acknowl- edging cultural gaps openly and working around them), structural intervention (chang- ing the shape of the team), managerial inter- vention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team member when other options have failed). There is no one right way to deal with a particular kind of multicultural problem; identifying the type of challenge is only the
ﬁrst step. The more crucial step is assessing the circumstances—or “enabling situational conditions”—under which the team is work- ing. For example, does the project allow any ﬂexibility for change, or do deadlines make that impossible? Are there additional re- sources available that might be tapped? Is the team permanent or temporary? Does the team’s manager have the autonomy to make a decision about changing the team in some way? Once the situational conditions have been analyzed, the team’s leader can identify an appropriate response (see the exhibit “Identifying the Right Strategy”).
Adaptation. Some teams ﬁnd ways to work with or around the challenges they face, adapting practices or attitudes without mak- ing changes to the group’s membership or assignments. Adaptation works when team members are willing to acknowledge and name their cultural differences and to assume responsibility for ﬁguring out how to live with them. It’s often the best possible approach to a problem, because it typically involves less managerial time than other strategies; and be- cause team members participate in solving the problem themselves, they learn from the pro- cess. When team members have this mind-set, they can be creative about protecting their own substantive differences while acceding to the processes of others.
An American software engineer located in Ireland who was working with an Israeli account management team from his own company told us how shocked he was by the Israelis’ in-your-face style: “There were deﬁ- nitely different ways of approaching issues and discussing them. There is something pretty common to the Israeli culture: They like to ar- gue. I tend to try to collaborate more, and it got very stressful for me until I ﬁgured out how to kind of merge the cultures.”
The software engineer adapted. He im- posed some structure on the Israelis that helped him maintain his own style of being thoroughly prepared; that accommodation enabled him to accept the Israeli style. He also noticed that team members weren’t just confronting him; they confronted one another but were able to work together effec- tively nevertheless. He realized that the con- frontation was not personal but cultural.
In another example, an American member of a postmerger consulting team was frus-trated by the hierarchy of the French com- pany his team was working with. He felt that a meeting with certain French managers who were not directly involved in the merger “wouldn’t deliver any value to me or for pur- poses of the project,” but said that he had come to understand that “it was very impor- tant to really involve all the people there” if the integration was ultimately to work.
A U.S. and UK multicultural team tried to use their differing approaches to decision making to reach a higher-quality decision. This approach, called fusion, is getting serious
attention from political scientists and from government ofﬁcials dealing with multicul- tural populations that want to protect their cultures rather than integrate or assimilate. If the team had relied exclusively on the Ameri- cans’ “forge ahead” approach, it might not have recognized the pitfalls that lay ahead and might later have had to back up and start over. Meanwhile, the UK members would have been gritting their teeth and saying “We told you things were moving too fast.” If the team had used the “Let’s think about this” UK approach, it might have wasted a lot of time
Identifying the Right Strategy
The most successful teams and managers we interviewed use four strategies for dealing with problems: adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them), structural intervention (changing the shape of the team), managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team member when other options have failed). Adaptation is the ideal strat- egy because the team works effectively to solve its own problem with minimal input from management—and, most important, learns from the experience. The guide below can help you identify the right strategy once you have identiﬁed both the problem and the “enabling situational conditions” that apply to the team.
REPRESENTATIVE PROBLEMS ENABLING SITUATIONAL CONDITIONS STRATEGY COMPLICATING FACTORS
• Conﬂict arises from decision- making differences
• Misunderstanding or stone- walling arises from commu- nication differences
• Team members can attribute a challenge to culture rather than personality
• Higher-level managers are not available or the team would be embarrassed to involve them Adaptation
• Team members must be exceptionally aware
• Negotiating a common understanding takes time
• The team is affected by emo- tional tensions relating to ﬂu- ency issues or prejudice
• Team members are inhibited by perceived status differ- ences among teammates
• The team can be subdivided to mix cultures or expertise
• Tasks can be subdivided Structural Intervention
• If team members aren’t carefully distributed, sub- groups can strengthen preexisting differences
• Subgroup solutions have to ﬁt back together
• Violations of hierarchy have resulted in loss of face
• An absence of ground rules is causing conﬂict • The problem has produced a high level of emotion
• The team has reached a stalemate
• A higher-level manager is able and willing to intervene Managerial Intervention • The team becomes overly dependent on the manager
• Team members may
be sidelined or resistant
• A team member cannot ad- just to the challenge at hand and has become unable to contribute to the project
• The team is permanent rather than temporary
• Emotions are beyond the point of intervention
• Too much face has been lost
• Talent and training costs are lost
trying to identify every pitfall, including the most unlikely, while the U.S. members chomped at the bit and muttered about anal- ysis paralysis. The strength of this team was that some of its members were willing to forge ahead and some were willing to work through pitfalls. To accommodate them all, the team did both—moving not quite as fast as the U.S. members would have on their own and not quite as thoroughly as the UK members would have.
Structural intervention. A structural inter- vention is a deliberate reorganization or re- assignment designed to reduce interpersonal friction or to remove a source of conﬂict for one or more groups. This approach can be extremely effective when obvious subgroups demarcate the team (for example, headquar- ters versus national subsidiaries) or if team members are proud, defensive, threatened, or clinging to negative stereotypes of one another.
A member of an investment research team scattered across continental Europe, the UK, and the U.S. described for us how his man- ager resolved conﬂicts stemming from status differences and language tensions among the team’s three “tribes.” The manager started by having the team meet face-to-face twice a year, not to discuss mundane day-to-day prob- lems (of which there were many) but to iden- tify a set of values that the team would use to direct and evaluate its progress. At the ﬁrst meeting, he realized that when he started to speak, everyone else “shut down,” waiting to hear what he had to say. So he hired a con- sultant to run future meetings. The con- sultant didn’t represent a hierarchical threat and was therefore able to get lots of participa- tion from team members.
Another structural intervention might be to create smaller working groups of mixed cultures or mixed corporate identities in order to get at information that is not forthcoming from the team as a whole. The manager of the team that was evaluating retail opportu- nities in Japan used this approach. When she realized that the female Japanese consultants would not participate if the group got large, or if their male superior was present, she broke the team up into smaller groups to try to solve problems. She used this technique repeatedly and made a point of changing the subgroups’ membership each time so that
team members got to know and respect everyone else on the team.
The subgrouping technique involves risks, however. It buffers people who are not work- ing well together or not participating in the larger group for one reason or another. Sooner or later the team will have to assem- ble the pieces that the subgroups have come up with, so this approach relies on another structural intervention: Someone must be- come a mediator in order to see that the various pieces ﬁt together.
Managerial intervention. When a manager behaves like an arbitrator or a judge, making a ﬁnal decision without team involvement, neither the manager nor the team gains much insight into why the team has stale- mated. But it is possible for team members to use managerial intervention effectively to sort out problems.
When an American reﬁnery-safety expert with signiﬁcant experience throughout East Asia got stymied during a project in China, she called in her company’s higher-level managers in Beijing to talk to the higher- level managers to whom the Chinese reﬁn- ery’s managers reported. Unlike the Western team members who breached etiquette by approaching the superiors of their Korean counterparts, the safety expert made sure to respect hierarchies in both organizations.
“Trying to resolve the issues,” she told us, “the local management at the Chinese reﬁn- ery would end up having conferences with our Beijing ofﬁce and also with the upper management within the reﬁnery. Eventually they understood that we weren’t trying to in- sult them or their culture or to tell them they were bad in any way. We were trying to help. They eventually understood that there were signiﬁcant ﬁre and safety issues. But we actu- ally had to go up some levels of management to get those resolved.”
Managerial intervention to set norms early in a team’s life can really help the team start out with effective processes. In one instance reported to us, a multicultural software devel- opment team’s lingua franca was English, but some members, though they spoke grammati- cally correct English, had a very pronounced accent. In setting the ground rules for the team, the manager addressed the challenge directly, telling the members that they had been chosen for their task expertise, not their
ﬂuency in English, and that the team was going to have to work around language prob- lems. As the project moved to the customer- services training stage, the manager advised the team members to acknowledge their accents up front. She said they should tell cus- tomers,“I realize I have an accent. If you don’t understand what I’m saying, just stop me and ask questions.”
Exit. Possibly because many of the teams we studied were project based, we found that leaving the team was an infrequent strategy for managing challenges. In short-term situa- tions, unhappy team members often just waited out the project. When teams were per- manent, producing products or services, the exit of one or more members was a strategy of last resort, but it was used—either voluntarily or after a formal request from management. Exit was likely when emotions were running high and too much face had been lost on both sides to salvage the situation.
An American member of a multicultural consulting team described the conﬂict be- tween two senior consultants, one a Greek woman and the other a Polish man, over how to approach problems: “The woman from Greece would say, ‘Here’s the way I think we should do it.’ It would be something that she was in control of. The guy from Poland would say, ‘I think we should actually do it this way instead.’ The woman would kind of turn red in the face, upset, and say, ‘I just don’t think that’s the right way of doing it.’ It would deﬁnitely switch from just professional differ- ences to personal differences.
“The woman from Greece ended up leaving the ﬁrm. That was a direct result of probably all the different issues going on between these people. It really just wasn’t a good ﬁt. I’ve found that oftentimes when you’re in consulting, you have to adapt to the culture, obviously, but you have to adapt just as much to the style of whoever is leading the project.”
• • •
Though multicultural teams face challenges that are not directly attributable to cultural differences, such differences underlay what- ever problem needed to be addressed in many of the teams we studied. Furthermore, while serious in their own right when they have a negative effect on team functioning, cultural challenges may also unmask fundamental managerial problems. Managers who inter-
vene early and set norms; teams and managers who structure social interaction and work to engage everyone on the team; and teams that can see problems as stemming from culture, not personality, approach challenges with good humor and creativity. Managers who have to intervene when the team has reached a stalemate may be able to get the team mov- ing again, but they seldom empower it to help itself the next time a stalemate occurs.
When frustrated team members take some time to think through challenges and possible solutions themselves, it can make a huge dif- ference. Take, for example, this story about a ﬁnancial-services call center. The members of the call-center team were all ﬂuent Spanish- speakers, but some were North Americans and some were Latin Americans. Team perfor- mance, measured by calls answered per hour, was lagging. One Latin American was taking twice as long with her calls as the rest of the team. She was handling callers’ questions ap- propriately, but she was also engaging in chit- chat. When her teammates confronted her for being a free rider (they resented having to make up for her low call rate), she immedi- ately acknowledged the problem, admitting that she did not know how to end the call politely—chitchat being normal in her cul- ture. They rallied to help her: Using their technology, they would break into any of her calls that went overtime, excusing themselves to the customer, offering to take over the call, and saying that this employee was urgently needed to help out on a different call. The team’s solution worked in the short run, and the employee got better at ending her calls in the long run.
In another case, the Indian manager of a multicultural team coordinating a company- wide IT project found himself frustrated when he and a teammate from Singapore met with two Japanese members of the coordinat- ing team to try to get the Japan section to deliver its part of the project. The Japanese members seemed to be saying yes, but in the Indian manager’s view, their follow-through was insufﬁcient. He considered and rejected the idea of going up the hierarchy to the Japa- nese team members’ boss, and decided in- stead to try to build consensus with the whole Japanese IT team, not just the two members on the coordinating team. He and his Sin- gapore teammate put together an eBusiness road show, took it to Japan, invited the whole IT team to view it at a lunch meeting, and walked through success stories about other parts of the organization that had aligned with the company’s larger business priorities. It was rather subtle, he told us, but it worked. The Japanese IT team wanted to be spot- lighted in future eBusiness road shows. In the end, the whole team worked well together— and no higher-level manager had to get involved.