Developing More Effective Multicultural Teams

Multicultural teams are increasingly the glue that joins the widespread operations of large global corporations. Frequently multicultural teams are also dispersed (based in different locations). Compared to traditional teams composed of members of similar cultural background located in one place, these teams offer the possibility of greater achievement - along with increased risk of dysfunctional performance. At their best, multicultural teams outperform traditional teams in the areas of innovation, understanding diverse markets, meeting customer needs and aligning diverse organizational interests. When things go sour, however, multicultural teams can become expensive, unproductive hotbeds of frustration and low morale.

Recently we followed the progress of eight global, cross-divisional teams in a large European multinational corporation. Each team had 7-8 members based on three continents representing at least five nationalities/cultures. Here are some of the lessons we learned from these teams:

  1. A team-building session early in the life of the team greatly increases the team's effectiveness through the life of the team.
  2. Each of the teams we observed had a team-building session at the time it was formed. Team members spoke of the continuing benefits on working relationships, credibility, execution of decisions, creativity and handling conflicts.

    Organizations are deterred from bringing a remote team to a single location by the time and expense involved. There is a belief that modern technology will somehow overcome the disadvantages of separation. Yet, as every one of our teams observed, without some way to build effective relationships early in the life of the team, the team operates at a permanent disadvantage compared to a traditional team; they will be less effective in meeting deadlines, resolving conflicts, exploring new ideas and supporting one another.

  3. Clarify team charters and norms at the outset.
  4. Our teams stressed the importance of clarifying the team's purpose, resources and deliverables early on. Besides wasting effort, backtracking to clarify these issues after the team has begun to work is made much more difficult by geographical separation of team members.

    Several teams also highlighted the payoff from working through and agreeing on norms for interacting with one another during the team-building phase. Such norms proved of great value in working together from dispersed locations.

  5. Subteams restore some possibility for face-to-face contact.
  6. Most of our teams had more than one member at each site (co-located members) or at least in the same geographical region. This was not intentional (although one team found it so helpful that they recommended the assignment of at least two team members from each location for future teams). Some of the benefits of co-located or regional subteams included:

    1. Periodic face-to-face meetings of subteams.
    2. Subteams are effective in implementing decisions taken by the entire team.
    3. The face-to-face contact provided by subteams restores some sense of personal connection, belonging and human interaction.
    4. Helps to keep overall team momentum going.

    One team used one team member as a linking pin to visit the various subteams on a periodic basis. They found this a valuable way to supplement periodic teleconferences to help team members feel included. This also proved an effective way to keep team members connected to developments in their personal and other parts of their professional lives.

    Several teams highlighted the need to realign team members each time a subteam worked on an issue and reported back.

  7. Extra efforts are required to include remotely based members.
  8. Not all locations or even regions were represented by more than one team member; some team members were geographically isolated from all other members of the team. Teams recognized that extra effort was required from other team members to offset and overcome a sense of isolation. For example, one team was very mindful in choosing assigned tasks for an isolated team member that were well-suited to building that team member's sense of involvement. Another tactic was to find ways to leverage that team member's location by using it to the team's advantage.

  9. Technology is a powerful teamwork tool but one with clear limitations.
  10. Teams regularly commented on the strong negative impact when they lost face-to-face contact. As we all know, a videoconference is simply not the same as a face-to-face meeting. Significant human elements are missing during the videoconference, and the opportunity to build and maintain relationships through pre- and post-meeting chit-chat is lost.

    Phone conferences are easier to manage but more impersonal. Teams commented on the importance of building regular teleconferences into team members' schedules. Most used weekly teleconferences, but one team found it more effective to schedule less frequent but longer teleconferences. Each team must find its own balance between frequency and duration of meetings in cyberspace.

    The early team-building created a sense of personal commitment between team members which sustained self-discipline and focus during teleconferences, and this was reinforced as a team norm. Several teams noted that this experience set these teams apart from others their members have belonged to, where the norm is multitasking (with corresponding wandering of attention) during teleconferences.

    Teams found it important to have clear objectives for each teleconference and to provide accurate minutes (including action items and responsibility), which were reviewed at the end of each teleconference.

  11. Managing conflict and creativity is a special challenge.
  12. Handling conflict in a productive way is difficult in any team. These teams faced an added burden. Conflict is perceived, valued and addressed in different ways in different cultures The loss of face-to-face contact makes it easy to misunderstand or escalate conflict unintentionally (e-mails are a notorious contributor to this phenomenon). When team members fear unwanted consequences of conflict, ideas are suppressed, discussions become sterile and creativity suffers.

    Our teams emphasized the role of personal, face-to-face contact in enabling appropriate conflict and creativity. Initial team-building and other mechanisms for creating face-to-face contact mentioned earlier (subteams, co-located members, linking member) were found essential from this perspective. Other teams stressed in their norms the need for self-discipline and for giving open feedback.

  13. Establish a buddy system to strengthen team connections and ensure all team members are kept in the picture.
  14. One team paired each team member with a "buddy." The pairs were not necessarily based in the same location. "Buddies" could represent one another if either had to miss all or part of a conference call. They were also responsible for keeping one another up to date on team discussions and decisions. Pairing team members also strengthened the sense of connection and belonging by creating additional connections to help offset the loss of daily face-to-face contact.

Multicultural teams are significantly different from traditional teams. They present specific and largely predictable challenges. They can deliver excellent results - but only if we anticipate and address the challenges that are inherent in their nature.

It…seems probable that the most creative thinking occurs at the meeting places of disciplines. At the center of any tradition, it is easy to become blind to alternatives. At the edges, where lines are blurred, it is easier to imagine that the world might be different. Vision sometimes arises from confusion.
Mary Catherine Bateson
Composing a Life