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The Human Side

Managing culturally diverse teams

by Peter Gwynne
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When French company Groupe Bull prepared to merge with American firm Zenith Data Systems, American and French engineers working for Bull discussed the difficulties of working with each other.

As the Americans saw it, their French colleagues took an "analysis paralysis" approach to problem solving: They insisted on analyzing the problem completely and correctly before taking any action. Americans, in the French engineers' view, insisted on action from the start, often at the expense of fully understanding the problem.

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Cultural disagreements of that type aren't necessarily insoluble. When an American software engineer started to work with a team of Israelis, for example, he was shocked by their argumentative approach toward him—until he realized that they took the same approach to each other. He adapted by imposing some structure on the team's work while allowing himself and his colleagues to express themselves naturally.

In another case, American and British members of a research team had violent disagreements over the speed at which they worked on a project; the Americans wanted to go full steam ahead while the Brits wished to advance more slowly in case they met serious pitfalls. Management accommodated both groups by setting an in-between speed that kept the project moving while allowing it to foresee problems.

And when a group of Japanese engineers encountered huge challenges cooperating with Indian engineers on a project for Infosys, they organized some training materials designed to stimulate the two groups to talk about their assumptions and experiences. The materials helped the two groups of engineers to understand each other's worldviews and to collaborate more effectively.

The fusion approach

In each case, leadership had unwittingly hit upon a particularly effective approach to managing diverse teams. Jeanne Brett, director of the Dispute Resolution Center at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and Maddy Janssens of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, who devised the approach, call it fusion. They coined the term because of the concept's similarity to fusion cooking, which combines ingredients or cooking methods from different cultural traditions while preserving their distinct flavors, textures and forms of presentation.

In the management context, Brett explains, "Fusion is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation." Those elements ensure that teams reach their goals most effectively. In addition, Brett says, "We think we have some evidence that teams with fusion teamwork systems are more creative."

Managers of R&D groups—in North America and elsewhere—face multicultural situations with increasing frequency. In those situations, they must deal with the potential for multiple cultural clashes among team members. The fusion approach has the basic goal of allowing every member to make his or her contribution to achieving the team's goals. "Fusion teamwork allows differences to coexist and be talked about," Brett explains. "Then the ideas can be packaged."

Traditional collaboration

Dealing with multicultural teams is hardly a new experience for R&D managers. Most organize collaborations in one of two ways. In the dominant (or subgroup) coalition model, a specific set of team members—which may or may not make up a majority of the team—directs the team's collection of information and decision making.

"[A] dominant coalition sets the scene, overrides differences that are not in line with its logic, and suppresses other perspectives," wrote Brett and Janssens in the journal Group & Organization Management (31, 1, 2006). "This creates a less culturally intelligent team model because it discourages meaningful participation in information extraction and decision making."

The most common alternative approach, the integration and/or identity model, requires all team members to sublimate their cultural identities to that of the entire team by adopting "superordinate goals" based on their common interests. The approach has the advantage of encouraging every team member to participate. However, it carries two risks. In the interest of unity, team members might submerge their cultural identities, and hence their ability to think differently. And the effort to include everyone in decision making might cause the team to function at the level of its least-creative member. In studies of the two approaches before and since publishing her original research, "We found problems with communication, confrontation, and commitment, as well as norms for problem solving, work behavior, time urgency, and pace, and violation of norms for status and intergroup prejudices." Those problems typically stem from the top.

"Managers set up their teams to fail because they themselves fail to help the team anticipate cultural differences and so see conflict in cultural, as opposed to personal or organizational, terms and fail to set norms for dealing with cultural differences such as meaningful participation and coexistence—the two basic elements of fusion," Brett explains. "Managers also fail to come up with integrative, creative ways of dealing with the differences in ideas that meaningful participation and fusion generate. Instead, they revert to dictating the team's solutions or letting a dominant subgroup take over. That leads at a minimum to a lost opportunity for the team to manage its own cultural problems."

Every member contributes

The fusion concept aims to overcome that type of problem by ensuring that every member contributes his or her expertise to the team's discussions. That takes careful organization and management. "One of the ways to get people to participate is to make the size of the group smaller," Brett explains. "In one example I studied, the group contained 16 people from four different geographical areas. They split the task into four parts and assigned a four-person multicultural team to each part of the task. In another example, there were maybe 12 people on the team, and part of the problem was that the lower-level people from one culture would not contribute when higher-level team members from their culture and area of the company were present. Here, the team was split into a couple of lower-level working groups with mixed cultures, and these teams reported up to the higher-level members. It took the Americans a while to accept this solution as they were less status oriented; but they found that this structure released a lot of knowledge from the status-sensitive lower-level counterparts, and so they went along."

Brett offers another way to ensure full participation in team discussions: seeding the group with someone who is likely to support the team member who has not been participating. A seeded member of this type who has a comprehensive understanding of the strengths and knowledge that each other member brings to the team can give the nonparticipant opportunities to contribute his or her expertise to discussions.

To deal with disagreements in a neutral way, Brett and Janssens suggest team leaders should put the issues to a vote. And if one cultural group consistently wins the votes and threatens to overpower other team members, Brett recommends that team leader should intervene— for example, by encouraging more questioning among team members or appointing individuals or, again, setting up small groups to work on particular problems and share their solutions with the entire team. To take maximum advantage of individuals' specialist knowledge, team leaders should continually reconstitute the small groups.

Breaking through the language barrier

The small group concept has particular value when some members of the main group are less fluent than most in the group's lingua franca. In some circumstances, the team leader can organize small commonlanguage groups to brainstorm problems and have the most fluent member of the subgroup report back. Alternatively, Brett and Janssens wrote, the leader can "encourage team members to speak in their own native language and have other team members collectively translate." While that strategy requires bilingual team members and may be cumbersome in large teams with several different native language speakers, the pair adds, "it has the very nice secondary effect of making the task of passing the language hurdle a team task, not an individual task."

Brett summarizes the strength of the fusion concept with a simple example. "Look at greeting behavior," she says. "Kissing, bowing, and shaking hands all achieve greeting effectively. In fusion, team members realize there's a different way of doing things over there and how the team can use those differences to be more creative."