Managing the Multicultural Team

From: Intercultures Magazine of the Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Trade Dept.

An interview with Jeanne Brett.

Jeanne Brett is the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations and is the Director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management.
How big of an issue is the challenge of working with multicultural teams?

It's huge! To get the best people to confront the complexities of managing global corporations, these businesses are pulling talent from all over the world. As a result, you're working multicultural teams even though you may all be located in Toronto. They probably didn't grow up in Toronto, and even if they did grow up in Toronto, they might be first generation immigrants. Their social-cultural background is implicit in how they go about social and professional interactions and that's where the problems arise.

Top of Page

You've written about the problem areas and broken them down into four categories: communication styles, language, hierarchy/authority and decision-making. Let's start with decision-making–can you give me an example?

The example is actually an old example from when Groupe Bull, the Paris-based computer company, acquired Zenith Data Systems, an American company.

They were trying to put together the engineers from these two different groups. Of course the French engineers were trained in a French university system and the American engineers were trained in the American university system. They had a terrible time trying to understand each other and be patient with each other because the French were analyzing everything to the extent where the Americans thought it was over analysis, and the French thought the Americans were "shooting from the hip" and not spending enough time in analysis.

I have seen this in my own MBA class, with my French exchange students. They're trained that there's one best answer and therefore a lot of thought and analysis goes into trying to find that best answer. The Americans have really been trained that there's probably a multitude of best answers and some are best on some dimensions and some are best on the others, and over-analysis is just going to bog you down. So get one of the best answers and go with it and if it doesn't work, you've got a backup. These are very different perspectives on making decisions.

These things aren't just learned at university but also acquired through their socio-cultural backgrounds.

You see the same problem with Alcatel-Lucent situation where they've just essentially changed their top management because they have not been successful in integrating those two companies. It's the same thing; the engineers are trained very differently in school and so they approach problems differently. The way the other party approaches the problem not only drives you crazy, but you were trained that that's not the right way to do it.

Top of Page

Along the same lines, I would imagine questions regarding the importance of hierarchy within certain cultures could also cause tensions?

The tendency is that people from , which tend to be Asian cultures, but are not exclusively Asian cultures by any means, are likely to be much more sensitive to the status differentials in the team. If you are low status, you defer to high status. If you are high status, you expect the low status people to defer to you. Western egalitarian culture people think this status doesn't really matter. They're in a team and they're supposed to be working together; everybody should be participating and here are all my ideas.

I was working with a really good group of executives the other morning and we were talking about multicultural teams. One of the slides that a colleague of mine uses demonstrates that as the size of the team increases, the number of people who talk doesn't. If you have a team of four people, two dominate. If you have a team of six people, two people dominate. As it gets bigger, it's an even bigger drop-off.

This is true in all teams, not just multicultural?

Yes, it's true in all groups in general. Then when you add the cultural differences between egalitarianism and hierarchy in Western and Eastern cultures on the dimension of deference to status, you get a relationship between who's talking and what their cultural background is. Which means there's got to be a reason why you've got these Asian culture people on your team and you're not hearing from them. So the deference to status, combined with a much greater focus on saving face, results in a reluctance to speaking up and also a very strong reluctance to deliver bad news, to tell somebody "I disagree." When you disagree, there is a tendency to not talk to the other party face to face but rather get the boss involved. That just drives the Western culture people crazy; "You've got a problem with what I did, come to me."

Top of Page

Right. "Why don't you just tell me?"

Why did my boss come to me? You're not supposed to get the boss involved.

And of course the problems run both ways.

Exactly. In Asian cultures, that's when you do involve the boss. You involve the boss because if I confront you directly, there's a loss of face for both of us, but if the boss–who has higher status–handles it, then neither one of us lose face.

Assuming I've got a team that has problems, and they are of mixed cultures, how do I know that these cultural differences are the problem? How do I know that they're not related to other issues?

My sense is if the team is multicultural and you've got problems, it's probably healthy to try and identify those problems as cultural. It's very unhealthy to identify those problems as, you know, some crazy personality.

Top of Page

What about organizational culture?

Well, if you'd identify it as an organizational problem, then there's something broken in the organization. Let's get away from culture for a minute and let's look at functional differences in an organization. People from Sales look at the world from volume perspective of their sales and people from Marketing look at the market share perspective. That's not broken!

We can't convince marketing that volume is their major criteria and vice- versa. We've learned with functional differences to allow these differences to co-exist. What we need to learn better in terms of cultural differences is to allow these different approaches to co-exist. And that's very hard.

In order to overcome these difficulties, in terms of managing a diverse or multicultural team, you present a couple of models: one is the fusion model and the other is the hybrid model.

There are really three models that I talk about in my These are models of collaborations, interactions, decision-making. How do you go about teamwork?

The model that many, many groups fall into was the subgroup dominant model. Which means one or small groups of team members ideally control everything. It's expedient and it's probably okay when you have a task that just needs reproducing constantly, and that task is going on in an environment that's not changing rapidly.

Top of Page

So would an example of this be some sort of Business Process Outsourcing, like a call centre?

Yes, probably. So we have our way of doing it and it's very prescriptive. This is how we're going to do it and if we have to make changes, the subgroup is going to determine what those changes will be and we'll go forward. But the only reason we're having a multicultural team in that situation is that the same call centre would be facing different cultural groups calling in, different languages skills, etc.

Most multicultural teams are facing much more complex tasks–tasks that require the product or the service to be launched in different parts of the world. So, what happens then is you need to capture the diversity and the complexity that your multicultural team members have, and you need to transform it into decisions and services and strategies and products.

And the concept of fusions is one that the political scientists, particularly in northern Europe, are talking about a lot. We've applied it to multicultural teams and the best analogy for it is cooking; there's lots of fusion cooking and fusion restaurants around. There's one here in Chicago that is kind of an odd combination of Peruvian, I think, and Japanese. They're taking cooking techniques, ingredients, and mixing them up in a way that generates a unique solution. What's important about fusion is a cook can say okay, this is the Japanese part of the meal and this is the Japanese element of the taste, and this is the Peruvian. So that you really haven't lost the unique cultural parts of it.

And you've identified three means to keep this fusion model, or coexistence, going: substitute culture collaboration norms, introducing the unexpected, and mixing norms.

Those are three ways to keep this coexistence piece going.

Top of Page

How do you distinguish between substituting cultural norms and mixing them?

Let's look at an example of a software development team. You've got part of the team in the U.S., part in Germany and the other part in India. They are working on code, passing it off to each other across time zones and essentially working on this project 24 hours a day. The team had agreed that all supporting documentation would be written in English. However, the Germans were not comfortable enough with English and instead wrote their documentation in German. The American portion of the team said "No, we agreed to English for all supporting documentation." But clearly, the Germans were not comfortable with that solution. So the Indians said "They are not comfortable with English; we can have the German material translated into English, and we can do it here in India for much less than in Europe or in the U.S."

So the norm for the team was that we do all the support documentation in English. Instead, the Germans substituted English for German. Then the team came up with kind of a mix solution and the acceptance of that mix as a way to deal makes things work.

The key in fusion is you make things work by respecting what the other party needs to do.

Earlier, you also mentioned a hybrid model of managing multicultural teams.

The one model kind of in the middle is a hybrid. So what you might get, and it's very hard to distinguish it from a fusion, would be the group doesn't just take the dominant subgroups cultural approach to problem solving or teamwork. The group develops its own hybrid approach. But then it is the group's approach and it is fixed, it isn't moving. But it's one that's been agreed upon. The major difference between the hybrid and fusion model is that the fusion is a moving target – it's much more fluid.

Top of Page

You point out that typically in teams where the fusion model is used, consciously or unconsciously, you tend to find members who would score higher, if I can put it that way, on a cultural cognition or cultural intelligence test.


I have two questions on that: can you please give me your definition of cultural intelligence and is this something that can be taught?

Well, let's deal with the first thing first which is the definition of cultural metacognition. The formal definition is something like cultural consciousness and awareness during social interaction. So it's not just awareness of my biases, but it's seeing what's going on through another lens; "Oh, maybe the reason Marie is doing this is cultural."

So it's not only about oneself, but also about the interactions within a group.

Right. Right, there are four of them and here we're talking about cultural consciousness and awareness during social interaction. The other three are behavioural–what people do in multicultural situations; motivational–what people are interested in doing in multicultural situations, and cognitive–what people know about norms and practices in other cultures. In our research, we chose to use the metacognitive because we thought it's not what you know about the others, but it's that you're seeing the other people's behaviour in cultural terms. Seeing the behaviour of the other party as culturally tied as opposed to associated with personality.

Top of Page

So is this something that can be taught or learned? Is it a selection issue? Or a mix of those two?

Well, you probably need to talk to , Professor at the Eli Broad Graduate School of Management, Michigan State University, about that.

Clearly what cultural metacognition is probably related to is metacognition generally. So people who are attuned to the social world that they're interacting with and responsive to it and trying to understand it. They're probably going to be culturally metacognitive too. It's probably more tightly related to metacognition than having a lot of cultural experience.

You know, the do's and don'ts can be taught. But the motivational thing I think is much more difficult.

What are some of the classic missteps that managers make when trying to correct these types of problems?

Managers set their teams up to fail because managers themselves fail to help the team anticipate cultural differences and fail to set norms for dealing with cultural differences, such as meaningful participation and coexistence–the two basic elements of fusion. They fail to come up with integrative, creative ways of dealing with the differences in ideas that meaningful participation and fusion generate. Instead, they revert to dictating the teams' solutions or letting a dominant subgroup take over. At a minimum, this leads to a lost opportunity for the team to learn to manage its own cultural problems.