Effectively managing multicultural teams

IT managers know that multicultural teams create multifaceted challenges. Subtle obstacles to teamwork resulting from cultural or linguistic disconnects can cause real damage before a manager even realizes what’s happening. In the November issue of Harvard Business Review, Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar and Mary C. Kern discuss what they’ve learned from multicultural teams worldwide. Brett, director of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, talked with Kathleen Melymuka about successful strategies for meeting the challenges these teams pose.

You write that multicultural teams face four barriers to success. Let’s talk about the first: direct vs. indirect communication. A woman was working for a U.S. company in its Japanese office, which was checking software for Y2k. She found a mistake and e-mailed a notification to her boss and her three Japanese interfaces in Japan. They lost so much face because of that.

What should she have done? In Japan, you have to go about it indirectly so they don’t lose face. She might have had a meeting with her Japanese counterparts, raised the specter of this kind of problem lurking in the system and asked what would be the implication if it were in there. They would have understood, “She found it; we’ve got to fix it.” But by working with them very directly, she embarrassed them. She became more isolated than ever before, and any relationship-building she had been able to accomplish was lost.

Another challenge is trouble with accents and fluency. When team members have accents or lack vocabulary in the language of the team, often they’re reluctant to speak up on an area of their expertise. So the team loses out on their expertise. And when they do speak up, if team members who are not very tolerant of accents don’t listen to them, that generates a self-reinforcing stigma: They become even more reluctant to speak up. And the team loses their expertise.

There are also differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. In a hierarchical culture like India’s, there’s a lot of deference to senior people, either by age or level in the organization. There’s a reluctance to question a senior person. So Indian engineers in multicultural teams see Americans arguing with the team lead or with older people, and culturally they’re not comfortable doing that, so the team passes them by and everybody loses.

Finally, you cite conflicting norms for decision-making as a potential problem. A very highly respected American software engineer was running a team that was doing a project for an Israeli client. So the American goes to Israel and gets blasted with questions from team members and the client. He was used to being respected as someone who really knew what he was doing, so he had a hard time with that. Ultimately, he realized that they weren’t questioning his ability; it was just their way of digging deeper into his knowledge.

Let’s look at some of the strategies successful teams use to deal with multicultural problems. The first is adaptation. It means that people see the problem as not an issue of personalities but as cultural difference. Once they do that, it’s amazing how much they can live with it.

And a subset of that is fusion. Can you explain? Fusion allows the coexistence of multiple approaches. In teams, there may be synergies from approaching problems in multiple ways because we’ll get more insight and preserve the unique perspectives of people who approach problems in different ways. In a lot of places in Latin America, they take the two-hour siesta. The North Americans would say they’re not pulling their weight. But then they realized the Latin Americans were still working at 9 and 10 at night, when they had gone home. So they learned that they could send a problem to the Latin American office at the end of their day, and they would have it solved by next morning. Rather than accuse people of being lazy, they learned to use those differences.

Another strategy is managerial intervention. When does that make sense? Doing it right often means doing it early in the life of the group. The manager sets some norms of what’s appropriate and what’s not. One IT manager had a group from all over the world with lots of accents. And with technical words, it’s worse, because people have seen them only in print. So he told the team that no one had been picked for English skills; they were picked because each was technically the best person for job, so get over the accents. He set norms of respect. Later, when they were installing the system and interacting with customers, that manager told team members to tell the client: “I know I have an accent; if I could get rid of it I would. I want to be sure we communicate, so if you don’t understand me, don’t hesitate to stop me, and we’ll go at whatever pace it takes so that I can make you understand me.”

Finally, there’s the exit strategy. Sounds like a last resort. It is. We interviewed people on permanent and short-term teams. When people could see the end and knew they would get reassigned, they would do what we call “lump it” — swallow their pride and cope. With much longer-term teams, we found occasional examples of people leaving. Instead of trying to change the situation or the people, they just moved on.

Is that for the best? Skilled IT people can almost always find another assignment. And when emotions get so high and so much face has been lost, it’s almost impossible to get things back to an equilibrium where people can work together again. If I’m not talking to you, I can still build my part, but it won’t work with your part.

What’s your advice to IT managers of multicultural teams? The most fundamental thing is to be a role model for respect. It rubs off on the other members of the team. Helping team members see that problems are due to cultural differences and not personality helps a lot. And if you’re able to help the team see that the behavior that’s so frustrating and annoying is due to culture, then people get curious: How do they get anything done in that culture? And when you unleash curiosity, that inspires learning. The last thing is, don’t intervene too swiftly. If they can always bring a problem to your door and you solve it, they don’t learn to solve it themselves.


Culture clash

Problems for multicultural teams:
— Direct vs. indirect communication
— Trouble with accents and fluency
— Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority
— Conflicting norms for decision-making

Strategies for multicultural teams:
— 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
— Exit — removing a team member

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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