Managing Multicultural Teams

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Teams whose members come from different nations and backgrounds place special demands on managers – especially when a feuding team looks to the boss for help with a conflict.

Teams
by Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, and Mary C. Kern
When a major international software developer
needed to produce a new product quickly, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the United States. From the start the team members could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The Americans thought the work could be done in two to three weeks; the Indians predicted it would take two to three months. As time went on, the Indian team members proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production process, which the American team members would find out about only when work was due to be passed to them. Such conflicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this case they arose from cultural differences. As tensions mounted, conflict over delivery dates and feedback became personal, disrupting team members’ communication about even mundane issues. The project manager decided he had to intervene–with the result that both the American and the Indian team members came to rely on him for direction regarding minute operational details 84

harvard business review | hbr.org
JILL CALDER

Managing Multicultural

M a n a g i n g M u l t i c u l t u ra l Te a m s

that the team should have been able to handle itself. The manager became so bogged down by quotidian issues that the project careened hopelessly off even the most pessimistic schedule–and the team never learned to work together effectively. Multicultural teams often generate frustrating management dilemmas. Cultural differences can create substantial obstacles to effective teamwork – but these may be subtle and difficult to recognize until significant damage has already been done. As in the case above, which the manager involved told us about, managers may create more problems than they resolve by intervening. The challenge in managing multicultural teams effectively is to recognize underlying cultural causes of conflict, and to intervene in ways that both get the team back on track and empower its members to deal with future challenges themselves. We interviewed managers and members of multicultural teams from all over the world. These interviews, combined with our deep research on dispute resolution and teamwork, led us 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. We’re not talking here about respecting differing national standards for doing business, such as accounting practices. We’re referring to day-to-day working problems among team members that can keep multicultural teams from realizing the very gains they were set up to harvest, such as knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service, and 24-hour work rotations. The good news is that cultural challenges are manageable if managers and team members choose the right strategy and avoid imposing single-culture-based approaches on multicultural situations.

The Challenges
People tend to assume that challenges on multicultural teams arise from differing styles of communication. But this is only one of the four categories that, according to our research, can create barriers to a team’s ultimate success. These categories are direct versus indirect communication; trouble with accents and fluency; differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conflicting norms for decision making. Direct versus indirect communication. Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit. The meaning is on the surface, and a listener doesn’t have to know much about the context or the speaker to interpret it. This is not true in many other cultures, where

meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented. For example, Western negotiators...
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