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Culture and Communication in Multicultural Teams

Multicultural teams have become very common in recent years. With cross border mobility becoming much easier the number of people moving from one country to another has grown significantly. This has also led to more people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds intermarrying. Their children could be born and grow up in different countries and have hybrid cultural identities. Globalization and the advances in communication and transportation technology have reduced trade barriers and increased interaction among people.

Is global homogeneity a feasible and desirable vision? Philosophically this would be very questionable. This would be immediately equated with suppression of differences and diversity, which are inalienable human rights. It can be argued that it would destroy cultures and diminish creativity. There are enough instances in human history e.g., the fate of the Native Americans or the Conquistador actions in South America, where one culture has by force exterminated other cultures. Then there are scores of other examples where aspects of cultures have blended through interaction e.g., India and the United States. Today, though genocides happen under our very eyes e.g., in the Balkans or in some parts of Africa, the prevailing models of cultures influencing others is mutual interaction, where there is ample room for retaining one's own cultural identity. As of the 2000 census, "minorities" have become the majority population in six of the eight largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Thus living with and managing diversity has become the central theme of this century.

Many studies have in fact shown that diversity in human capital actually leads to increased creativity and efficiency in many cases. Studies have also shown that the failure to successfully integrate diverse workforces has negative implications for organizational performance. This is most publicly expressed in legal actions, such as recent discrimination suits against multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, Xerox.

The skills needed for managing with people from diverse backgrounds at work or outside the workplace can be very different because in the workplace we are in our work roles and there are many external constraints to our behaviour. Many people actually spend more time awake with their colleagues than with their spouse and children. So any problems arising in this area will definitely spill over onto the private life.

Looking carefully into the factors that affect multicultural team leadership or management, we can identify five factors that operate at team levels:

   1. National culture
   2. Corporate culture of the organisation
   3. Nature of the industry or functional culture (coal mine, marketing, accounting)
   4. Stage of team development
   5. Personal attributes

National Culture - There are ample theories and much research into how national cultures affect team behaviour. Ger Hofstede's Culture's Consequences (1980) and Cultures and Organizations (1991) are two examples. National culture has many dimensions like orientation to time, style of communication, personal space, competitiveness and worldview. Generally we are dealing also with stereotypes and cultural biases here. Regional and personal life experience or character traits can override these ascribed 'national' culture traits. In real life this means that an Italian team member can be a shy, quite person or a German can be hopeless with timetables.

Corporate Culture - Corporate culture is very closely related to the functional culture and it is a result of a historical process where the founder and successive leaders have left their marks. A large multinational organisation is bound to have a more structured, hierarchic and bureaucratic approach to running its affairs while an Internet web design company with 5 young creative artists would be an entirely different environment.

Nature of the Industry - Coal miners, web designers and international bankers would seem to come from different worlds. Dress, language, etiquette, unwritten codes of behaviour, accepted practice and skills needed on the job vary to a great extent in different industries. It is of vital importance that the industry, the organisation or the environment allows team members to display a sense of pride in one's professional identity.

Stage of Team Development - If the team is just recently formed with no history or experience, the rules of the game have to be learnt by everyone. If the team has a history of performing efficiently, new entrants can rely on established practice and older members to teach them the skills required. The stage of development of the team member also plays a great role here. If the team is in the formation stage, the rules of the game are still being negotiated and people are learning their own roles. The 'veteran' team member has carved a secure role for himself while the entrant has to struggle.

Personal Attributes - Last but not least is all the other factors like personality, competence profile, the individual's own life experience, expectations of rewards, acknowledgement and satisfaction from working in the team as well as previous history of team working.

The first three factors are static factors, which means that their characteristics cannot be easily changed by individual action. Team members or even the whole team cannot change the national culture. Individuals, teams and organisations have to learn to adapt to them. In fact the efficiency of the team is directly corelated to how well this adaptation has been achieved. But intervention can greatly affect the last two factors of Stages of Team Development and Personal Attributes. A team can accelarate its progress from formation stage to the stage of maturity and an individual can change personal attributes by acquiring new competences. Superior sustainable team performance can be achieved only if team members learn to take into account dimensions of national culture like orientation to time, style of communication, personal space, competitiveness and worldview and have successfully adapted their working practice to reflect the team members' background realities.

By Rana Sinha who was born in India, studied and lived in many places and travelled in 80 countries, acquiring cross-cultural knowledge and building an extensive network of professionals. He has spent many years developing and delivering Cross-cultural Training, Professional Communications skills, Personal Development and Management solutions to all types of organizations and businesses. He now lives in Helsinki, Finland and runs http://www.dot-connect.com, which specializes in human resource development as well as communication and management skills training with cross-cultural emphasis.