Multicultural teams sometimes have a problem deciding whose culture and way of executing their work should prevail.

By Craig Storti – Director, Communicating Across Cultures

It might be, for example, that different team members have different approaches to how to conduct a meeting. Americans on the team expect a frank and honest exchange of views, open disagreement (albeit polite), and a great deal of back and forth by all those present. Asian team members may prefer to discuss contentious issues before the meeting in one-on-one conversations, to avoid open argument in front of others, and junior members in these cultures may not speak unless invited to. Each side is going to be frustrated by the cultural norms of the other side. So how does a team like this decide whose style is going to be the team norm?

If all members of the team are located in the same country, then it usually makes sense to follow the cultural norms of that culture, since most members living and working in that country will be familiar with its norms—even if the norms differ from their own. But for a virtual multicultural team, with members located in a number of different countries, there may not be a logical “dominant” culture with which most members are familiar and to which they would be comfortable adjusting. In this case, no single country or culture has a claim to how meetings should be conducted.

One common solution is to adopt the approach of the country of origin of the corporation. For example, at a German company, employees will already be familiar with “the German way of thinking,” whether or not they come from Germany. The norms will be embedded in the company culture, so conforming to them will probably involve the least compromise for the greatest number of people.

Another solution would be to adopt the majority rule approach: You canvass team members to see if there is a particular meeting style that is most familiar or appealing. That style then becomes the team’s norm. If there is no such majority, then the best approach is for the team to discuss and agree on a series of norms that require the least number of cultural adjustments for the greatest number of team members.The resulting team culture would not correspond exactly to any one team member’s culture; everyone would have to make some compromises, but the discomfort would be spread around more or less equally.

The process of discussing and agreeing on something like meeting style, one of many issues the team may have to create norms around, tends to bring the team together and make it stronger. Studies indicate, in fact, that while multicultural teams experience more severe growing pains and take longer to coalesce and be productive than monocultural teams, once they do manage to come together, they are more productive than monocultural teams.

Craig Storti, a consultant and trainer in the field of intercultural communications, is the author of seven books. His latest, Speaking of India, describes the common cultural flashpoints when Indians work together with native Americans. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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