Multicultural teams are rightly extolled for their creative and world-wise solutions. But, as Professor Kristin Behfar’s research has shown, they also come with a unique set of challenges. Any team, regardless of who is on it, might face problems when setting norms for problem-solving, confrontation and deciding how to spend time and resources. But multicultural teams may additionally struggle with:

  • Different expectations for respecting hierarchy and other status indicators
  • Pre-existing stigma and intergroup prejudice spilling into the workplace
  • Lacking a common ground of language and culture
  • Differing interpretations about the level of commitment and/or agreement reached in a decision

To provide concrete solutions to these abstract problems, Professor Behfar and her co-authors interviewed leaders working around the world with experience working in multicultural teams. The following recommendations condense a trove of hard-won advice on how these leaders think about the individuals they manage, group practices, managing relationships with other teams, and the organization as a whole can help multicultural teams perform optimally.

Understanding Individual Employees (It Starts in Your Own Thought Process)

Separate perceptions of cultural difference from an individual trait.

  • Engage in conversations that inform you about subtle differences. For example, strike up conversations about photos in their office, hobbies and travels. Also ask for stories about how they handled difficult work situations in the past.
  • Think about how they might be experiencing you. For example, how your behaviors might uphold a cultural stereotype and acknowledge it with good humor (e.g., perceptions about aggressive confrontation, differences in scheduling expectations, relative respect or lack thereof for hierarchies and structure).
  • While self-deprecation is disarming, it usually backfires to joke derogatively about others’ cultural values (e.g., time orientation, process, confrontation), gender or religious beliefs, even jokingly.
  • Recognize explicitly that communication styles do not reflect intelligence or competence. For example, while in the U.S. open-ended questions indicate uncertainty or indecisiveness, in the East they are a sign of respect.

Work to minimize language differences.

  • Native speakers bear the responsibility to ensure both sides fully understand each other. Create the norm that asking someone to repeat themselves is not offensive — this is particularly helpful with accents.
  • Use pictures, stories and data to help illustrate your point. Avoid colloquialisms, slang and words with double meaning or confusing context. Just one example: in the U.S. “assessment” means an imposed penalty, but in India it means a pending investigation.
  • Do not hesitate to ask for agreement in multiple ways, include extra time to proofread materials, and revisit a “final” decision multiple times.

Leading a Group Toward Best Practices

Monitor subtle ways of giving preferential treatment.

  • Managers should give feedback to and socialize with the whole group, not just culturally similar individuals.
  • Try to minimize discussion of country-specific customs, sports or jokes unless everyone enjoys them.

Set ground rules.

  • Establish a common language for meetings, expectations for timing (how late is too late?) and expectations for attending out of office events.
  • When dealing with disagreement, outline acceptable ways to criticize, disagree and correct one another. Should this happen in public or private?

Avoid creating artificial divisions between members.

  • Don’t speak a language unless everyone is fluent, and try to separate a message’s content from a culturally stereotyped delivery — e.g., an “aggressive” American or “pushy” French.
  • Remain current on political issues in co-workers’ countries of origin — especially histories of war, ethnic conflict and interference of foreign governments in regime change (e.g., voting rights in Puerto Rico, the Cold War, displaced peoples). Use caution when discussing world politics and be sensitive to the perceived status of countries — the U.S. has a dominant pop culture but it offends some.

Resolve conflict quickly.

  • Managers should intervene to keep focus on the original cause of conflict and to help parties understand the cultural root of the problem.
  • Culture shock can wear down enthusiasm for proactively handling conflicts, so recognize how mistakes can be learning experiences. Learn about different cultural styles for confrontation and agreement. (Read about direct versus indirect confrontation styles in “In Defense of Indirect Confrontation: Managing Cross-Culture Conflict.”)

Foster norms of trust.

  • Get the team together face-to-face at least twice a year. Instead of icebreakers, a structured discussion highlighting shared values and the successes of colleagues works better.
  • When there are differences, start with small issues, demonstrate “proof of concept,” and provide small deliverables before moving on to important issues such as those with financial or relationship consequences.

Create and monitor goal clarity.

  • Send an agenda beforehand to allow teammates to reflect on the goal, prepare questions, and plan how to express themselves (especially for those who will be communicating in a non-native language).
  • Assign clear roles and benchmark the progress of each member, revising if necessary as the task progresses. Members will have different expectations for how much the team should rely on the direction of the leader.
  • Plan projects so that instead of there being one final deliverable, members report iteratively.

Monitor member contributions and implicit messages about their value.

  • Explain cultural-based tendencies such as punctuality versus lateness and saying “yes” without intending agreement. For example, in Japan, “yes” can simply mean, “yes, I am listening” rather than “yes, I agree,” as it does in the U.S.
  • Native speakers should take care not to dominate meetings or inadvertently claim credit for ideas they can express best — recognize where ideas came from so that fluency does not give an unfair advantage.

Managing Inter-Relations With Other Teams and Units

Be aware of how geography or “home court advantage” impacts meetings.

  • Be careful that host countries — particularly high status and executive members — do not numerically dominate in meetings, as it can overwhelm those who travelled.

Set process expectations.

  • Set a clear goal for each meeting (e.g., information, decision-making, etc.) and pre-establish priorities (e.g., whether to prioritize making the best possible business decision or catering to the customer).

Identify differences in contract and obligation expectations.

  • Understand normative differences around time estimates. In the U.S., delivery times are often based on monthly or quarterly time frames, but in many other countries, time frames are generally flexible and much longer.
  • Identify different practices around disclosure in pre- and post-contract negotiations, expectations for sharing data and adhering to nondisclosure agreements, and any “room for interpretation” around regulations (e.g., accounting standards, what an audit means, bribery, etc.).

Work around cultural customs.

  • Proactively plan for delays around work schedules like different work hours (e.g., siestas) and vacation norms (five to six weeks in Europe versus two in the U.S.). Also plan for delays in order to respect proper channels and hierarchies.
  • Understand what the other group values and what motivates them. For instance, do they want to make a deal in time for quarterly postings, or is it most important to them not to look bad in front of superiors?
  • Be sensitive to dietary and religious restrictions in planning days off, choosing restaurants, and food in the break room.

Organizational Support

Invest in the proper technology to support the team’s needs.

  • Use reliable technology, for instance, GSM cell phones that decrease static that might interfere with understanding work processes and performance benchmarks.

Leverage geography and proximity.

  • House expats together, for example by renting blocks of apartments in a high rise, to increase the chances of meaningful interaction and create community.

Set universal expectations that govern basic behavioral expectations for all branches and departments.

  • Write down values and outline acceptable behavior. But then also be sure to back these up with managerial enforcement, make rewards and leadership selection contingent on them, and monitor for consistency in organizational culture.

Create training programs that do more than highlight cultural differences.

  • Programs that teach employees about general differences in customs and cultures are not effective on their own because they only make differences more salient. Effective training programs use experiential learning (e.g., cases, on-site or video observation, Q&A with experienced expats), and they also address cultural differences specific to potential situations related to employees’ roles.

The above material is the product of research done for Managing Challenges in Multicultural Teams, a chapter in Research on Managing Groups and Teams, Volume 9, co-authored by Kristin J. Behfar, Mary Kern of the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College and Jeanne Brett of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.