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4 Effective Strategies for Managing Multicultural Teams

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Commentary by the Gonzales Group

RISMEDIA, April 17, 2008-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.

In cross-cultural negotiations, the non-Westerner can understand the direct communications of the Westerner, but the Westerner has difficulty understanding the indirect communications of the non-Westerner.

Trouble with accents and fluency. Although the language of international business is English, misunderstandings or deep frustration may occur because of nonnative speakers’ accents, lack of fluency, or problems with translation or usage.

These may also influence perceptions of status or competence. Their difficulty communicating knowledge makes it hard for the team to recognize and utilize their expertise. If teammates become frustrated or impatient with a lack of fluency, interpersonal conflicts can arise. Nonnative speakers may become less motivated to contribute, or anxious about their performance evaluations and future career prospects.

Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. A challenge inherent in multicultural teamwork is that by design, teams have a rather flat structure. But team members from some cultures, in which people are treated differently according to their status in an organization, are uncomfortable on flat teams. If they defer to higher-status team members, their behavior will be seen as appropriate when most of the team comes from a hierarchical culture; but they may damage their stature and credibility and even face humiliation if most of the team comes from an egalitarian culture.

Conflicting norms for decision making. Cultures differ enormously when it comes to decision making, particularly in how quickly decisions should be made and how much analysis is required beforehand. Not surprisingly, U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and with relatively little analysis, in comparison with managers from other countries.

The most successful teams and managers discussed by Brett, Behfar and Kern, use four strategies for dealing with these cultural challenges which include:

1) Adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them)

2) Structural intervention (changing the shape of the team)

3) Managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager)

4) Exit (removing a team member when other options have failed).

Adaptation is the ideal strategy because the team works effectively to solve its own problem with minimal input from management and, most important, learns from the experience.

For more information, visit www.thegonzalesgroup.com.

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