Managing Multicultural Team


Multicultural Teams often generate frustrating management dilemmas. Cultural differences can create substantial obstacles to effective teamwork. These may be subtle and difficult to recognize until significant damage has already been done. Authors of this article, interviewed managers and members of multicultural teams from all over the world. These interviews, combined with their deep research on dispute resolution and teamwork, led them to conclude that the wrong kind of managerial intervention may sideline valuable members who should be participating or, worse, create resistance, resulting in poor team performance.


Authors concluded there are four categories, which can create barriers to a team's ultimate success:

1. Direct versus indirect communication

Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit. This is not true in many other cultures, where meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented.

Example- 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 organization. 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

2. Trouble with accents and fluency

Although the language of international business in English, misunderstandings or deep frustration may occur because of non-native speaker's accents, lack of fluency, or problems with translation or usage. These may also influence perceptions of status or competence.

Example- When authors interviewed an American member of a U.S.-Japanese team that was assessing the potential expansion of a U.S. retail chain into Japan, she described one American teammate this way: "He was not interested in the Japanese consultant's feedback and felt that because they weren't as fluent as he was, they weren't intelligent enough and, therefore, could add no value."

3. Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority

A challenge inherent in multicultural 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 behaviour will be seen as appropriate when most of the team comes from a hierarchical culture; but they may damage their stature and credibility.

Example- One manager of Mexican heritage, who was working on a credit an 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 supposed 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, because 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."

4. 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. U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and with relatively little analysis by comparison with managers from other countries.

Example- A Brazilian manager at an American company who was negotiating to buy Korean products designed for Latin America told the authors, " 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."


The most successful teams and managers use four strategies for dealing with these challenges:


Some teams find ways to work with or around the challenges they face, adapting practices or attitudes without making 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.

2.Structural intervention

A structural intervention is a deliberate reorganization or reassignment 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, headquarters versus national subsidiaries) or if team members are proud, defensive, threatened, or clinging to negative stereotypes of one another.

3.Managerial Intervention

When a manager behaves like an arbitrator or a judge, making final decision without team involvement, neither the manager nor the team gains much insight into why the team has stalemated. But it is possible for team members to use managerial intervention effectively to sort out problems.


When teams are permanent, the exit of one or more member is a strategy of last resort, but it is used- either voluntarily or after a formal request from management. Exit is likely when emotions are running high and too much face had been lost on both sides to salvage the situation. The guide below can help us identify the right strategy once we have identified both the problem and the "enabling situational conditions" that apply to the team:


*Conflict arises from decision-making differences

*Misunderstanding or stonewalling arises from communication differences

Enabling situational conditions

*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



Complicating factors

*Team members must be exceptionally aware

*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 among teammates

Enabling situational condition

*The team can be subdivided to mix cultures or expertise

*Tasks can be subdivided


*Structural Intervention

Complicating factors

*If team members aren't carefully distributed, subgroups can strengthen pre-existing difference

*Subgroup solutions have to fit back together


*Violations of hierarchy have resulted in loss of face

*An absence of ground rules is causing conflict

Enabling situational conditions

*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

Complicating factors

*The team becomes overly dependent on the manager

*Team members may be sidelined or resistant


*A team member cannot adjust to the challenge at hand and has become unable to contribute to the project enabling situational condition

*The team is permanent rather than temporary

*Emotions are beyond the point of intervention

*Too much face has been lost



Complicating factors

*Talent and training costs are lost

____________ _________ _________ _________ _

Original Article by Jeanne Brett; Kristin Behfar and Mary C. Kern, Harvard Business Review Nov'06 .

From India
I agree with you Arun, awards do help you maintain a balance between the employees and industry. Hence i would expect every manufacturing industry participate in it.
From India, Bangalore

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