Nov 18 2016
The new young generation actively seeks out managing multi-cultural teams but is not well prepared
Working across borders and managing multi-cultural teams is something that the new young generation actively seeks out for. In one of my courses with around 90 students from different nationalities, we did a quick poll and found that 85 per cent of them intended to work in an international environment. Interestingly, in the same poll, 90 per cent of the students also reported having encountered conflicts when working with different nationalities and cultures.
There is much hype around diversity. Many business leaders propagate the importance of getting people from different nationalities, cultures, regions, educational backgrounds together in order to leverage the varied viewpoints. After all, having a Chinese person on board would immensely help product design teams to understand the nuances of the local mindset. One can expect better customer service from a culturally-sensitive workforce. And it can boost creativity and innovation.
Serious problems begin to emerge when the goals, values, and attitudes of different cultures clash. Language barriers and communication styles are the obvious ones. How people perceive time and deadlines is the other one that has been a constant point of jokes. Stereotypically, a 9 am meeting for a German employee means being present at 8.55 am while for a Spanish it could easily mean 9.15 am. Relevance of formal and informal communication styles, the importance of relationships, role of hierarchies and power dynamics all add up to the confusion of how to best work with people from different cultures. In team-settings, the understanding of and the approach to the task, what constitutes one’s fair share of work, who speaks the most and hogs the limelight, what constitutes good quality, and other such issues bring on new challenges.
From academic point of view, culture has always been an important aspect to study in anthropology, sociology, and psychology. Systematic new science is being developed to understand how these differences can impact business settings.
As one example, take the notion of autonomy. In current times, there is much emphasis on the importance of providing freedom, flexibility, and control over one’s own work in order to keep the employees engaged and motivated at work. In a classic study conducted with children, Professors Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper showed that the relationship between free-choice and motivation levels depended on the culture the students belonged to. Anglo-American children showed less motivation when someone else made the choice on behalf of them; however, the Asian American children were most motivated (and consequently better performance) when their trusted others made the choice for them.
Given the importance of and the problems involved in cross-cultural settings, a natural next question to ask is how to ensure a smooth working environment. Jeanne Brett and her colleagues in their Harvard Business Review article Managing Multicultural Teams outlined a step-by-step approach in order to address such conflicts. Creating cultural sensitivity is the first step. This could involve training sessions, building trust through team activities, and developing acceptable standards of communication. When new teams come together, there is typically a phase of adaptation where people develop an understanding of each other’s working styles and orient themselves to the team goals and values. Gaps get resolved effectively if members acknowledge the cultural differences and self-organise to address those.
Oftentimes, the problems become exaggerated, involve intense emotions and egos, and there are prejudices and stereotypes that stall any kind of effective functioning of the team. In such cases, structural changes may be warranted. For example, the teams might have to be reorganised. An external consultant might have to be hired who acts as a neutral party. Managers might have to take unilateral decisions without team involvement for the project to move forward. And in extreme cases, the conflicting employees might have to be removed altogether from the teams.
As the charm of working across borders and in multi-cultural settings increases, businesses are racing to tap on the immense opportunities that come from diversity. At the same time, proactively addressing the challenges that come along might be the differentiating factor and the next source of competitive advantage.
(Dr Kriti Jain is a faculty member at IE Business School, Spain, and an EU Marie Curie Research Fellow)