Managing multicultural teams for industry

Teams benefit from a multicultural mix once we understand how different aspects of culture impact teamwork, when to activate these and how to balance ‘individualism’ with ‘collectivism”.

The challenge of managing multicultural teams

This blog arises from a free webinar on “Managing multicultural teams – a scientific approach” that can be repeated on request. We address this important topic as 89% of knowledge workers across 90 countries reported being members of global virtual teams (Culture Wizard, 2018). A scientific approach dictates participants tackle research/resources from an array of fields including economics, evolutionary biology and social cognition.

Who we are? Humans are ‘groupy’, ‘loopy’ and ‘lazy’

As social creatures, we are distinctly ‘groupy’ having evolved as small, tight-knit alliances that co-operated reciprocally. However, managing across cultures is tricky even with the best will in the world. A nod intended to comfort may land with some as confrontational. Even silence can give a mixed message of either agreement or dissent. Culture is convenient as it sets norms of accepted behaviour but as social learners (primarily) we rely on clear feedback. When it comes to cross-cultural communication, feedback loops can be slower and heavy i.e. small indiscretions causing big upset. Aside from the obvious language barriers, dissimilar social cues challenge our ‘lazy’ brains and the ‘take for grantedness” that monocultures allow.

What culture differences matter enough to be counted.

Mind reading is impossible. Instead, we need a baseline reading that can reliably predict behaviour. Though abstract, culture is measurable, and an IBM engineer called Geert Hofstede began data collection for this purpose in the 70’s. He identified six important dimensions that determines the success rates of international teams.

For example, a culture can be ranked as either more ‘individualist’ or ‘collectivistic’. As we might expect, the latter (e.g. Greece, Portugal and China) prioritise harmony and co-operation, typically showing a great readiness to join teams. However, ‘individualist’ cultures (including Ireland, UK and US) while valuing individual initiative show strong team-oriented behaviours. They may want to protect their individual reputations most where tasks are highly interdependent but this produces team-based results.

Each cultural dimension is an orientation in a given direction and all twelve are valid, allowing us to see the world from certain perspective. When quantified the scores can even help predict macro behaviours and trends. For example, ‘individualism’ score help forecast international trade when combined with economic measures such as labour productivity, higher education rate, and urban population growth.

Therefore if we want take a scientific approach, we can use each Hofstede score as a base line and then adjust for other additional information we have e.g. based on other social group influences or even technological trends.

Other dimensions include ‘power distance’ i.e. the degree to which cultures expect and accept an inequality of influence. It is easy to overlook lack of universal concepts, even one as fundamental as fairness. Thus, even a simple instruction e.g. to “be kind” can be interpreted in multiple ways.

How to leverage cultural diversity – ‘framing’ and ‘priming’ effects

It’s a challenge to manage multiculturalism and indeed get the balance right on training. At time, it is wiser to de-emphasise cultural difference. Early careers, for example, can find this to be isolating, invasive or even intimidating.

Framing intercultural skills themselves however as useful is generally a good idea once we invest in continuously improving these, gradually. First, staff should learn the ‘hard’ skills e.g. gain proficiency on communication platforms. In additional, a certain threshold level of professional competency e.g. in time management is needed before culture-specific training. Later specific cognitive abilities that are proven to enable culture adoption can be focussed on including shared intentionality, imagination and social tolerance via enhanced self-management.

‘Priming’ is an approach that can help leverage cultural differences. Reminding people of their cultural identity has been shown to amplify certain behaviours. However, this isn’t as straightforward as we may expect. For example, even when we highlight ‘collectivist’ cultures, these take longer (on average) to form cohesive groups. The success of ‘priming’ will also depend on how strongly members self-identify with their respective social groups.

It is not a case of ‘either or’ when it comes to which dimensions can be activated, even individualist/collectivist. For example, while innovation is more associated with ‘individualist’ cultures, recent studies (analysing seventy-two groups), showed ideas flowed best from ‘consensual originality’ primed by what was termed as “independent collectivism”. While each culture has its own distinct beliefs, in fact, it is the synergy between them that produces creativity.

Why go beyond multicultural teams – ‘cognitive diversity’.

In factories, we’re increasingly reliant on multicultural teams and interacting systems and processes, often uniquely, to get work done. Problem-solving in these ‘wicked settings’ requires particular skills that develop well in teams such as perspective-taking.

It is the continuous improvement that best supports the intercultural competencies we need for ‘cognitive diversity’ (the ability to switch thinking gears). Related skills include ‘metacognition’ i.e. an ability to think about our thinking. The Engineering Skillnet offers a core programme in critical thinking (delivered monthly) to help team members understand and adjust their thinking e.g. to persuade others using their own logic.

They say that “travel broadens the mind” but this isn’t a guaranteed by changing location. However, teams that value ‘cognitive diversity’ tend to be willing to regularly question and test their beliefs; adjusting ‘base rates’ as new information emerges.

Building intercultural skills on teams also helps individuals to grow and this is key. As Walt Whitman said “I am large, I contain a multitude” - meaning that each individual has multiple relational and collective identities.

We can also measure the individual ability to traverse intercultural differences with tools such as the ‘Mysore’ Development Model of Intercultural Sensitivity, also known as “the Bennet Scale”). As Bennett explains, “Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews”,

By approaching multicultural teamwork scientifically, we are also being sensitive to the new skills that are needed as well as faithful to the old Sufi saying: “no idea is above scrutiny, no person is beneath dignity”.