Managing Cultural Cocktails

Thu, Dec 11, 2008


Have you come across conversations or stories similar to the following?

  • ‘Hans, I’m really tired of this medieval formality. How many times does one have to meet with Doctor Wilhelm Müller before I can start calling him ‘Willi’?’ asked an American. ‘You are asking when you can start calling Dr. Müller by his first name? Well, the answer is niemals, Dummkopf! Never, you dummy!’ replied Hans, a German friend. (Source: Cross cultural business behavior)
  • Three months into this assignment in New Delhi Richard from Chicago began to think about requesting a transfer to a more congenial part of the world – ‘somewhere where things work.’ He just could not understand why the Indian officials were being so rude. Why did they keep him waiting? Why didn’t the bureaucrats hold their incoming calls and sign papers after the meeting so as to avoid the constant interruptions? After all, the government of India had actually invited his company to open this buying office. So didn’t he have the right to expect reasonably courteous treatment from the officials in the various ministries and agencies he had to deal with? (Source: Cross cultural business behavior)

Working across cultures can be tough, frustrating, even hilarious! The challenge arises when it threatens teamwork and damages business prosperity. But the good news is these differences are manageable. According to Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, and Mary C. Kern multicultural challenges can be handled by adapting right strategy and avoiding single-culture based approaches on multicultural situations. They categorize these differences in four areas – direct versus indirect communication; trouble with accents and fluency; differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conflicting norms for decision making.

Managing Multicultural Teams, a Harvard Business Review article, suggests four strategies for dealing with multicultural work problems mentioned above effectively:

  • Adaptation ‘“ accepting cultural gaps openly and working with them
  • Structural intervention: changing the shape of the team
  • Managerial intervention: setting group norms or bringing in higher-level manager
  • Exit: removing the team member as a last resort

Adaptation is by far the best approach as it involves less time of the manager, and people learn to solve their problems. People confront the problems and take responsibility to work around them. For example, an American software engineer adapted the Israeli style of confrontation. Without getting stressful and taking it personally, he accommodated to their style ‘“ they like to argue, it’s a cultural practice. Similarly, post-merger, an American member of the consulting team came to understand that it was important to involve French managers, even those who were not directly related to the merger.

Structural intervention is most appropriate when obvious subgroups demarcate the teams. This approach buffers those who are not working well together. It requires a mediator to piece together the subgroups. When in Japan, the manager of a team found out female Japanese consultants would not participate if the group was large or male superiors were present, she broke up the team into smaller groups. She kept changing the members of each team such that the team members got to know and respect one another.

In managerial intervention, the manager makes the final decision without consulting the team. At a multicultural software development team, some members spoke accented English. The manager told the team to work around the language problem as they were hired for their task expertise not language fluency. The team was advised to tell the customers they accented English and so must stop or ask questions if they don’t follow.

The exit strategy is well suited for a project-based team.

I agree that adaptation is the best approach to managing culturally diverse teams. At least it can have long-term benefits for a company operating in the global arena. I think as globalization spreads and becomes a way of life (or is it already one?!), adaptation will become easier to learn – just the way second languages have been studied and mastered!

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