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Building High-Performance Multicultural Teams

Culture comprises the shared beliefs, attitudes, values and customs of a group of people. One generation passes it to the next through speech, literature and institutions. While our culture defines how we perceive individual objects and situations, it also encompasses the way we see the world and make sense of the universe.  As we go through life, our mental processes, including our social cognition, interactions and desire to work with others, are all influenced by our culture.

Influence of Diversity at Work

Diversity signifies a world of people from many cultures, nationalities, religions and languages.  Typically when we talk about diversity, we reference how others differ from ourselves. Aside from ethnicity, nationality, race and gender, diversity also applies to socioeconomic, demographic, psychographic, appearance, disability and sexual orientation characteristics. Thus diversity implies that we may be completely different from others on whom we must rely daily and with whom we attend meetings and conduct business. This difference can lead to unplanned and unmanageable conflict if we refuse to try to understand one another.

In multicultural teams, the diversity members impact team participation, thinking, discussions and decision-making. Similarly, if the cultures of team members are so homogeneous that they fail to represent the larger community, the outcome of the team’s efforts may be limited and biased.

The Myth Of The Management Team

Differences and Conflicts

Most people prefer to work with people like themselves, particularly when we share cultural values, common language, similar experiences and common norms.    Working with people who share our culture establishes a sense of familiarity and anticipation of expectations in terms of goals, behaviors, language and verbal and non-verbal communication.  However, when we team with people who share our objective but differ in training, expertise, life experiences, languages and cultures, we may disagree so much that conflict and chaos develop.  To avoid such outcomes, corporations today sponsor diversity training programs.

Verbal Communication

Although effective teamwork demands strong communication skills, our culture has ingrained in us expectations about how we should use language and what we should expect from others.  These assumptions shape all facets of language, including our word choice, grammar usage, and the appropriateness of subjects, intentions and thoughts.  In some cultures, people of different casts, sexes, and hierarchical levels use different verbal and non-verbal language for communication.  For multicultural teams to succeed, they must look beyond hidden overtones that may or may not be expressed.

Non-verbal Communication

The extent to which non-verbal communication is used varies among cultures.  Cultures that rely on it  tend to extract much meaning from it.  Non-verbal communication includes body or facial and hand gestures, tone and volume of voice, level of participation, habits of dress and hairstyle.  Whereas  some gestures may express similar emotions across cultures, the suitability of using those expressions in different situations may vary considerably, depending on the culture and occasion.

Diversity in Small Teams

Within a multicultural team, people must rely on one another to reach a common goal.  Because every member is accountable for success or failure, each is expected to do an assigned part and cooperate with others to achieve success.  Motivated workers must feel that the opinions and data they contribute are valued and that they themselves are necessary components of the team.  When members feel unnecessary, marginalized, sidelined or demeaned, they may act in counterproductive and even destructive ways.  In the worst situations, charges of discrimination may result.

Multicultural teams can experience unhealthy conflict for several reasons. The different backgrounds of team members cause team members to interpret experiences in the group differently.  For example, minorities and women within the group may be highly sensitive to some subjects.  On the other hand, their cultural experiences can produce diverse responses and solutions that can lead to more effective choices.  While teams composed of homogeneous members operate more efficiently at the offset, in time, diverse teams usually outperform them by producing better, more creative solutions.

Another negative team role or group behavior is stereotyping, or generalizing based on race, nationality, sexual preference, gender or culture.  Sometimes members of the group focus solely on the contributions that we anticipate being made from a member, based on that person’s affiliation with a certain group.  For example, if members anticipate that gay males have intrinsic knowledge about the aesthetics of a new packaging design, they may ignore any other contribution gays make, despite their  knowledge and experience.  Similarly, if we deem that foreign members have too little knowledge about the domestic market, we completely diminish the value they can offer the team.  Stereotyping prevents groups from reaching their full potential because the team demands equal participation and consensus to reach its full potential.

Creative Problem-Solving

The different perspectives that multicultural teams bring can produce views and perspectives that might otherwise never be shared.  In addition, diversity shields a team from destructive practices such as groupthink, which tends to occur when a team is composed of interconnected members with similar backgrounds.  The team supports the most influential person on the team to reach consensus and develop a solution, even though it might not be the best choice.

Diverse teams usually produce better results than teams strictly comprised of the most intelligent minds available.  Homogeneous teams seldom produce pioneering decisions that diverse teams, which encourage different ideas and fair evaluation, can produce   The more diverse and multicultural the team, the greater the likelihood for stimulating interaction that produces creative ideas.  However, for multicultural teams to be productive, they must manage conflict, participate freely, share ideas, welcome alternatives, embrace cultural differences and view one another as equals committed to reaching a common successful goal.

Diverse Teams; Diversity; Shared Goals; Common Goals; Control; Respect; Participation; Responsibility; Differences; Commitment; Conflict; Resolution; Ethics; Leadership; Objectives; Diversity; Multicultural; Assumptions; Marginalization; Stereotyping; Favoritism; Problem; Analysis; Plan; Strategy; Implementation; Lead by Example; Productive Teams;

Infographic source: 9 Pillars of Successful Diverse Teams

9 Characteristics of High-Performance Multicultural Teams

#1. Establish Rules

For multicultural teams to work, they must establish and follow clearly defined rules.  Diverse groups develop diverse solutions, but as the differences increase among members, so do the opportunities for unhealthy team behavior.  Discord in diverse teams usually arises when members make assumptions about the attitudes, intentions, behaviors, and communication of others.  In contrast, healthy conflict and focused debate geared toward analyzing facts, opinions and potential solutions should set the standard.  To achieve this goal, each member must feel a sense of belonging, appreciation, respect, team mission and ownership, gained by receiving appropriate attention and having one’s own ideas listened to and considered.

#2. Build Trust

Team members build trust by listening to others, showing genuine interest and being respectful.  Active listening is critical to demonstrate transparency and awareness of one’s own limitations.  Leading by example also builds trust.  Nothing damages trust more than saying one thing and doing something else, while expecting others to uphold their obligations.

#3. Manage Conflict

In North American businesses, conflict is an expected and desired component of group interaction, creative problem-solving and communication. However, the ideal of harmony that is dominant in many Asian, Latin and other cultures is frequently at odds with North American business philosophies.

A certain amount of conflict is desirable in groups, but when it becomes unproductive and unhealthy, it must be resolved quickly.  Conflict can result from cultural differences, but it can also result when team members don’t contribute or when members feel ignored or ashamed to contribute.  All members must be encouraged to contribute their ideas and engage in open discussion.

#4. Commit to a solution

Before members can commit to a team, they must understand the expectations of each member, cooperate with others and support group decisions even when the group decides on ideas that are not their own.  The best teams realize that sometimes they must make risky or uncertain decisions.

#5. Be Responsible

Team members understand that they have individual responsibilities.  Full accountability for each team member is based on establishing effective guidelines, procedures and practices.  There must be straightforward delivery of positive and logical explanations for each of the team’s actions.

#6. Manage Power

Trusting people who hold positions of power can be difficult for people in cultures that have been historically victimized through racism, discrimination and bigotry.  Thus members must ensure that these people are guaranteed the right to express their ideas.

Deciding who will hold the ultimate power in leading the team and how decisions will be made should be specified upfront.  Here are four common approaches that teams use for making decisions.

  • Majority Vote – Team members vote for their preferred solution and the majority wins. The downside is that minority voters may be upset enough to refuse to collaborate on implementing the solution.
  • Consensus – Members continue to deliberate on the merits of each option until they hammer out a unanimous decision.  This method requires so much time that they may never reach a decision.
  • Minority – A subcommittee is tasked with making the decision. This method is often used when groups are large or when convening and reaching an opinion would be impractical or impossible.
  • Authority – The team leader makes the final decision but relies on team members to provide data, recommendations, opinions and review.

#7. Monitor Conformity

Teams operate most effectively when they create a manageable level of conflict.  In spite of best intentions, usually pressure for conformity arises in groups to complete the mission.  Not at all  unusual is discomfort or outright hostility toward members who consistently raise seemingly irrelevant issues or refuse to go along with what appears to be a majority opinion.  On the other hand, often the “deviant” individual brings up issues that may otherwise go unnoticed or unacknowledged, thereby moving the group toward creative thinking and problem-solving.

Groupthink, a decision-making process, occurs when members conform to one another to avoid conflict and promote agreement.  When group-think takes over, members of the group unquestioningly follow another member instead of engaging in rational disagreement.  Leadership should identify the opportunity for group-think upfront and establish proactive strategies that deter conformity and ensure the proper vetting of alternative solutions.

#8. Achieve Results

The goal of building trust, resolving conflicts, increasing commitment and being accountable is to achieve the desired results collectively agreed upon.  A huge challenge to team success is learning to operate in a successful team culture, of collaborating while also competing.

#9. Ensure Ethical Behavior

Multicultural teams require proactive strategies that promote ethical behavior.   Members should recognize that stealing ideas, wasting time, pressuring or bullying, deception, racism, threats, harassment, unreliability, dishonesty and backstabbing will not be tolerated.

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Pete Detlef, is a marketing and linguistics professional with two decades of experience on both the client and agency side of marketing. He is a part-owner of 24 Hour Translation, a language translation services company. His work experience includes International Marketing, Marketing Research, Project Management and Product Management.

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  • Hi Elaine,

    I think you make a strong case for using both!

    Check out the poll “How Often Do You Check Email During the Workday?” that we’ve been running on TYB. It’s had over 1100 responses. The 2 top answers:
    1. Whenever new mail arrives (35%, 389 Votes) &
    2. Rarely – I text and Facebook instead (24%, 270 Votes)

    This suggests to me that you now need to use both e-mail & social media to communicate with customers, or in other words, don’t dictate but rather let the customer pick the channel they’re most comfortable using.

  • Derbhile Graham

    Sounds you favour social networking over email. I actually prefer email, for the reason you gave relating to it being a closed option, so you know your words aren’t just floating in cyberspace.

  • John Twohig

    Email, despite being very time consuming, is still the most effective way to communicate with customers. Within companies however the social platforms such as Podio, Jive and Salesforce’s Chatter are gaining serious momentum. Podio has over 230,000 customers, all companies, gained within the last 2 and half years, the efficiency’s over email are startling, well worth checking out. Good post Elaine.

  • Hi Niall,

    Yes, interesting results on that poll. Seems, individually, we are still finding the happy medium. I like your idea of letting the customer pick the channel – this is hugely important, and the tone of the relationship is then controlled by the customer, putting them in the driving seat – a good start to the relationship.

    Thanks for reading Niall.

  • Very observant Derbhile,
    I use both professionally. I would easily tweet a supplier or peer, however, most contact from potential clients come through email, or one of my websites’ contact forms.
    So I use both, and try not to dictate, but as Niall says below, allow the customer choose the channel. Thanks for your comment 🙂

  • Thank you kindly John,
    Yes, I have seen a huge push on internat social platforms, as a quick method of continuous and collaborative communication.
    Interesting, your point on email being time consuming. I think this is one of the factors that make it popular – if you write me an email, I appreciate the effort and time you have put in and will place further value on it 🙂

  • Thank you Julie,
    The majority of communication that comes to me from organisations is through email, or a contact form on one of my websites. So I would agree with your first comment.
    I think confidentiality is an issue no matter what platform we use, nothing is 100% sacred on the interweb. Keeping that in mind at all times, is important.
    Thank you for your comments, and reading the post.

  • I think from small business point of view, the use of social media platforms for communication will continue to rise due to the reasons from point#1 to Point#6 of your article. As a small business owner that early interaction with the customers can pay huge dividends. One negative thing that can come out of this social interaction is that a negative testimonial can make a very damaging impact on your business, so an active social media management is required to make this a successful medium for your business.

  • Hi Wazir,
    Super points, thanks for sharing them here, and thanks for reading.

    I am curious about the increase of SN sites as a point of contact for customers – will business dealings become less formal, and more social? Or will we lose the run of ourselves and start hanging out more and more dirty laundry…

  • I can’t really say but the way things are moving, I will not be surprised if social becomes the new formal.

  • Teepu

    I’m stuck between both worlds. The good thing about social media is that you get to connect with a whole lot of people especially your customers easier and way faster than email.

    Thanks for sharing in Bizsugar!

  • A Very Nice and Informative Post

  • Hi Teepu,

    I think we will all be in limbo land for a while, until business becomes much more social, and less formal. Great point about connecting with customers, I feel we should connect with them, using their preferred method of contact.

    Great comments, thanks!!

  • Thank you Thundey,
    I am pleased you enjoyed the post, and hope it was of value to you.

  • Gregory Orth

    You state very good cases for each argument. But from what I can see I don’t think that either of these will be replacing each other anytime soon

  • Mitchelle M.

    Actually, the primary responsibility of every member of a multicultural team must be to be ready to pull their own unique individuality and personality together with that of other members for the central Purpose of building up the team, especially in the presence of some obvious diversity like language, training, and cultural differences.
    Great post!

  • George A.

    Interesting read! Of course, we may not always work with people of the same cultural background or with common norms. But learning to respect and tolerate one another is one of the basic keys to building a performing multicultural team that works.

  • Francesca Jake

    Thanks for sharing! There must always be a central rule that will guide and keep every member together when it comes to looking to building a functional multicultural team. The rules are just to accommodate and welcome the opinions of every member without a single feeling of being ignored or unrecognized.

  • Rachael Jens

    Defining a clear goal and purpose usually go a long way to helping build a functional multicultural team; let every member know what they are in for. That’s when it will be easy to work together and corporately achieve a desired purpose. Nice piece.

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