xxxvi) Multi-cultural Teams



. Multi-cultural teams can offer the advantage of diversity in thinking which can be important in areas such as culturally sensitive production/manufacturing, marketing and sales (customer service, etc), etc

. On the other hand, problems can arise stemming from cultural differences which can seriously impact the effectiveness of the team.

. It is important to recognize the underlying cultural causes of conflict in multi-cultural teams and to

"...intervene in ways so that it comes back on track and empowers its members to deal with future challenges themselves......avoid imposing single-cultural-based approaches on the multicultural situations..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

. Generally it is assumed that challenges in multicultural teams arise from different styles of communication; but this is only 1 of 4 categories (see below)

Four categories or barriers impacting on the effectiveness of multi-cultural teams:

i) Direct vs. indirect communications

Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit while in other cultures that meaning can be embedded in the way the message is presented. In cultures where indirect communication is used, direct questions are not acceptable while inferences are. Thus, in cross-cultural communications,

"...the non-Westerners can understand the direct communications of the Westerners, but the Westerner typically misunderstands the indirect communications of the non-Westerner..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

The difference between direct and indirect communications can cause serious damage to relationships when the project teams run into challenges. The direct approach of the Westerners can violate the acceptable norms of uncovering and discussing problems in other cultures. For breaking cultural norms, the person can be isolated socially and physically from the rest of the team.

"...communication challenges create barriers to effective teamwork by reducing information sharing, creating interpersonal conflict, or both..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

ii) Trouble with accents and fluency

"...although the language of international business is English, misunderstandings or deep frustrations might occur because of the non native speaker's accent, lack of fluency, or problems with translation or usage. These may also influence perceptions of status or competence..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

Sometimes the person with the greatest expertise can have the poorest language fluency and, as a result, this person does not contribute. In these situations there can be a misperception that the degree of language fluency is linked to their intelligence and knowledge of the subject.

iii) Differing attitudes to hierarchy and authority

In some cultures people are treated differently according to their status in organisations, usually hierarchical. Thus they are uncomfortable in an egalitarian, flat team structure as challenging a higher-status team member can result in damage to their stature and credibility and even cause humiliation.

" a result of differing cultural norms, team members believe they're been treated disrespectfully, the whole project can blow up..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

iv) 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..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006

Typically Americans make quicker decisions, with less analysis, than most other nationalities.

Four possible strategies to handle multicultural challenges

i) Adaptation (acknowledge cultural gaps openly and work around them). This is the preferred strategy as the team works to solve its own problem with minimal input from management; thus, the team gets ownership of the problem and solution, and learns from the experience.

ii) Structural intervention (changing the shape or makeup of the team to reduce interpersonal friction and/or to remove a source of conflict)

iii) Managing intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a high level manager)

iv) Exit (removing a team member when other options have failed)

Identifying the right strategy

First, identify the type of challenge (see barriers mentioned above)

The table below helps with identification of the right strategy once the problem is diagnosed and the enabling situational conditions are identified. Furthermore, for each strategy, complicating factors are outlined.

Representative Problems

Enabling Situational Conditions*i


Complicating Factors

Conflicts arise from decision-making differences.

Misunderstanding or stonewalling arises from communication differences.

Team members can acknowledge and attribute a challenge to culture rather than personality differences.

Team members assume responsibility for solving the differences and learn from the process.

High level managers are not available or the team is embarrassed to involve them.


Team members must be exceptionally aware that negotiating a common understanding takes time.

The team is affected by emotional tensions relating to fluency issues or prejudice.

Team members are inhibited by perceived status differences between team members.

The team can be subdivided to mix culture or expertise.

Tasks can be subdivided

Structural intervention

If team members aren't carefully distributed, subgroups can strengthen pre-existing differences.

Subgroup solutions have to fit back together

Violation of hierarchy has resulted in loss of face.

Absence of ground rules is causing conflict

Problem has produced a high level of emotion.

Team has reached a stalemate.

A high level manager is unable and/or unwilling to intervene.

Managerial intervention

The team becomes overly dependent on the manager.

Team members do not have ownership of the solution.

Team members may be sidelined or resisted.

A team member cannot adjust 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.

Switch from professional /cultural to personal differences.


i) This is the most crucial step, ie assessing the circumstances under which the team is working. For example,

"...does the project allow any flexibility for change, or do deadlines make that impossible? Are there additional resources 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 analysed, the team's leader can identify an appropriate strategy..."

Jeanne Brett et al, 2006


. Which strategy of the above 4 strategies is chosen depends upon the particular circumstances.

. Despite the complications of each strategy, it has generally been found that to maximize the team's effectiveness and solve culturally-based problems:

- managers need to intervene early and set the norms

- managers need to engage all team members

- team members must understand that the challenges are stemming from culture and not personality

- use good humour and creativity to diffuse tensions

(source: Jeanne Brett et al, 2006)


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