Culturally diverse teams: When they’re good they’re good, but when they’re bad…

A new project is underway and you are assigned to staff it. After an exhaustive search you find the perfect people for the job. The new hires fit the technical needs, and although you did some non-traditional hiring of candidates from other countries, everyone’s English language skills are very good.

Time elapses and you begin to hear rumblings. The team you so carefully put together is beginning to squabble. The project is falling behind. The skilled individuals you hired should be doing a great job, but they are late with their assignments and not adding to the twice-weekly brainstorming sessions. Managers are getting frustrated with the workers inability to be proactive, while some team members cannot understand why they are always questioned and not assigned tasks. The team is breaking down and in many cases the reason why is complex yet easily overcome: cultural differences.

More cultures = more needs
With each new technological advance the world is getting smaller. Information is travelling around the globe instantaneously, allowing needs to be filled by qualified individuals, no matter where they are from. This fact, in concert with the growing need for certain work skills, leaves companies finding workers in places that are quite different from Canada.

As the number of representatives from different cultures in the Canadian workplace increases, so does the importance of interaction between the cultures.

With work teams becoming increasingly culturally diverse, more information is emerging on the success and failure rates of diverse teams.

Carol Kovach, of UCLA’s Graduate School of Management, uncovered the hit-or-miss nature of culturally diverse teams, when she found that cross-cultural teams are either highly effective or highly ineffective, almost never average. She attributes the high productivity to the increased creativity and decreased “groupthink” that diversity brings, while she found that the failures could often be attributed to poor communication.

The obvious question is why are these teams so volatile, and more importantly how does HR ensure work teams end up on the highly effective side of the ledger.

Why do diverse teams fail?
The volatility in culturally diverse teams often grows out of a lack of understanding. People may know the food or music that originates from a country, but they often know little more than that. This lack of knowledge leads to problems in communication and perception, which invariably causes a shortfall in productivity.

For example, in homogenous work groups a lot of the discussion is based on implicit understanding of communication. People from the same culture often share a similar background, which leads to like perceptions, interpretations and values. This unspoken bond within one culture often leads to communication difficulties with people from different backgrounds because a given conversation can be interpreted in very different ways — imagine a newcomer to Canada trying to decipher jokes about Stockwell Day or Jean Chrétien.

Communication issues go beyond not being able to understand “inside jokes,” but to basic communication style differences. There is the question of eye contact, which is considered rude in some cultures, and a show of respect and confidence in others like Canada.

Another communication challenge is the question of “when does yes mean no?” Some cultures will say yes to a task or request, but only mean “yes, I understand,” not “yes, I agree and will perform that task.” This miscommunication often leads to tasks being unaccomplished, time lines being ignored and fingers being pointed.

Since many cultures are much more hierarchical than Canada’s, it is sometimes forgotten how others may react to authority figures. Those from hierarchical countries will often not share their opinion unless they are asked directly for fear it will contradict or offend their senior manager. This situation leads to the great ideas of a diverse team never being heard, and the “groupthink” that plagues homogeneous teams being transferred to diverse work teams. This also presents a second challenge for those not comfortable speaking up, they are seen as having nothing to add to the productivity of the team, causing tension and suspicion amongst the group.

How to make a diverse team work
The volatile nature of the culturally diverse work team can best be described by the old saying: when they are good, they are very, very good, and when they are bad, they are rotten. So how can we make them very, very good?

Diverse work teams will only succeed if the members, and especially the manager, understand the importance of culture. You cannot begin to understand other cultures without first becoming aware of your own stereotypes, prejudices and cultural values. Once that self-evaluation takes place, the members of the team can begin to ask themselves, and each other, how members of the different cultures can contribute to the team and complement the others.

Once a certain level of understanding is attained, everything else will build from there. Individuals from different cultures will communicate more explicitly, ensuring that everything is understood, making communication clearer. The level of mutual respect increases and opinions from everyone are more likely to be included, eliminating the dreaded “groupthink.” The teams begin to produce more effectively because all members participate and cultural dominance becomes less of an issue.

Better understanding is not the universal answer to all that plagues diverse teams, but in most cases it begins the trickle down effect that ends with more productivity. Research has indicated that culturally trained leaders or managers are more effective than those with no training, regardless of how they lead.

When you begin to get complaints about a work team failing, the solution may seem difficult. However, raising awareness and understanding within the team, of both themselves and others, is not a complicated process. And, as the team becomes more aware, they will find themselves on the good side of that old saying and the positive side of the productivity curve.

Laraine Kaminsky is the President of MALKAM Cross-Cultural Training, an organization that helps organizations take advantage of the changing demographics. She can be reached at (613) 761-7440.

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