HOW TO WORK ON MULTICULTURAL TEAMS?
What makes a team successful? Most probably, you can easily enumerate a couple of factors based on your intuition and own experiences. And what makes a multicultural team successful? Working on an intercultural team requires some more advanced skills and the right attitude. Students who join the ABSParis have many opportunities to practice those skills.
It comes as no surprise that we often hear from them “it is challenging to work with an international team,” “we struggle,” or even “I will become more prejudiced after this cross-cultural team experience than before.” Eventually, they learn and deliver results they can be proud of. One proof of that lies in the accolades the ABSParis multicultural teams earn for projects prepared for the Company Case Challenge. Their work is evaluated by high-rank managers from top French companies for which they solve real business cases.
After gaining some experience, ABSParis students often conclude that multicultural teamwork is worth the efforts put into making the team efficient. The value added by cultural diversity among team members is considerable – it makes all the difference for the outcome. Collective intelligence is higher, teams are more creative due to the mix and mingle of diverse perspectives and backgrounds.
WHAT MAKES A MULTICULTURAL TEAM SUCCESSFUL?
Why does it not come easy to work with representatives of different cultures? Firstly, let’s have a quick look at what is required for any team to function efficiently. A research project “Aristotle”, conducted by Google, studied 180 teams for three years and revealed two crucial traits of efficient teams: 1. the members spoke roughly in the same proportion, 2. and had high average social sensitivity. The latter falls in the realm of emotional intelligence. High social sensitivity manifests through reading accurately others’ emotions from their speech and body language. Socially sensitive people behave respectfully towards others and adjust their behavior according to the situation.
People’s behavior on any team results from an interplay of personality, previous experiences, and imprinted behavioral patterns. On a multicultural team, culture is added as an additional factor influencing both: individual behaviors as well as group communications and relations.
On a multicultural team, reading other’s emotions can become a daunting task. It comes naturally to observe and give meaning to the team members’ emotions within our cultural circle. However, applying the same standards to representatives of culturally remote people may be misleading. Some cultures, for example, Italian and Mexican, express emotions explicitly and vividly. On the one hand, it is very positive as it is easy to read them. On the other hand, such emotional display may be uncomfortable or even offensive to different cultures, which prime more reserved behaviors. The skills needed for social sensitivity on multicultural teams require learning about paralanguage, turn-taking, the meaning of silence, and even the comfortable distance between the interlocutors in different cultures.
The same concerns contributions to working discussions and speaking in meetings of cross-cultural teams. Team members who grew up in strongly hierarchical cultures may not be used to spontaneous discussions in the presence of senior colleagues. Most probably, they prefer to speak only when asked a specific question directly. Cultures of the Arab countries and the Indian subcontinent promote this kind of behavior. Nationals of countries where the concept of “saving face” plays an important role may consider it inappropriate or even disrespectful to publicly disagree with others or give negative feedback. China and Japan exemplify these countries.
These examples show that people who work in international teams bring different communication preferences, cognitive patterns, and body language to the table. Those differences may stir creativity and innovation, yet, at the same time, may cause misunderstandings and distress. As a result, it is challenging to provide psychological safety to everybody on an international team. As per the Google project, “Aristotle”, psychological safety is a crucial factor for effectiveness.
HARNESSING THE POWER OF CROSS-CULTURAL TEAMS
Paying attention to cultural differences and adjusting our behavior can be a little exhausting at moments. It may sometimes feel like work. It may happen that even when we try to act respectfully towards the members of our cross-cultural team, we fail and create socially awkward situations. It takes time, practice and intentionality to develop social sensitivity that works in cross-cultural settings.
It begs the question: how an international team can foster psychological safety for all members?
The first step is to acknowledge the differences between cultures. When the team openly talks about the differences, it is on the pathway to a successful cross-cultural collaboration. Moreover, each team member should reflect, study and learn about their cultural preferences for communication and teamwork. Starting with our own culture might be counterintuitive, but it helps build the awareness of why and how we perceive the behaviors of team members coming from different cultural backgrounds. Obviously, the next step is to learn about the teammates’ cultures.
Erin Meyer, in her book “The Culture Map. Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures” advises members and leaders of international teams to make conscious choices regarding cooperation strategies and tools.
Equipped with the knowledge of cultural differences, we can adjust how we discuss, solve problems, make decisions and give feedback in our cross-cultural team. The objective is to allow everyone to express their opinions and contribute to the teamwork the best they can.
The right mindset is another success factor for international teams: composure, curiosity, acceptance of ambiguity and flexibility, are the key components of cross-cultural intelligence. Promoting this mindset is another measure we can take to make our international endeavors successful.