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Managing Multicultural Teams
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The authors of this text argue that it takes longer for learning, problem-solving, and decision-making to take place in organizations where team members come from diverse cultures. They also argue that conflict among team members within an organization may increase proportionately with an increase in cultural diversity. The main point of departure in the text is that there are many strengths to be harnessed through culturally diverse teams. However, these strengths may be outweighed by process losses arising from challenges that are common in multicultural teams such as poor communication, differences in work ethics, and linguistic barriers.
The evidence that the authors use to make arguments on various problems is obtained by comparing multicultural teams to those teams where all members belong to the same culture. According to this chapter, it is important for managers to intervene at some point in order to address the challenges relating to cultural differences within organizational teams. However, some problems do not involve the intervention of the manager to be solved; team members can address the cultural issues involved before eventually solving the problems. On the other hand, some challenges may be so serious that some team members may be compelled to quit.
The next argument is that team challenges arising from cultural differences can be understood in terms of how demographic differences affect how the team members undertake their tasks. For example, age differences among members may cause problems due to the generation gap. They can also be understood in terms of how the cultural norms of members influence how they perform tasks as team members. For example, some members may come from a national culture where uncertainty is not tolerated.
Moreover, problems may arise if team members are not in agreement on whether to confront issues directly or indirectly. Some members may come from a culture where messages are delivered in a direct, aggressive manner. Others may come from cultures where messages are delivered through an elaborate process of building consensus.
The text also addresses the challenge of decision-making. Some team members may go directly into numbers, statistics, graphs, and figures. Others may focus on issues that are not necessarily related to problem-solving such as saving face and maintaining good relations with all team members. Cultural differences among team members can also cause differences in terms of how timelines are created. For example, in some cultures, it is acceptable for a team meeting to start fifteen behind schedule while in other cultures, it is unacceptable for the meeting to start five minutes behind schedule.
The challenge of differences in work-related behavior in multicultural teams is also addressed in this chapter. For example, in some cultures, an employee may take a nap during a meeting; in other cultures, such behavior may be interpreted as a lack of respect for the job and the members of the team. A similar argument is made regarding the challenge of confronting variations in the way different cultures address the issue of respect for power and authority. Some cultures emphasize a symbolic display of respect for senior managers while others require members to avoid being overly enthusiastic about their show of respect for authority.
According to Behfar, Kern & Brett (2006), multicultural cultural teams must also confront the issue of discrimination against members based on factors such as race, tribe, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Similarly, differences in language fluency may cause a perception of cultural distance between members of a team. This may be because of linguistic barriers in the form of variations in accent and choice of words. The last argument in this chapter is that cultures differ in terms of how explicitly a message is delivered to members within a multicultural organization. Members operating in multicultural teams may easily run into disagreements on whether specific issues were agreed on or not.
Behfar, K., Kern, M. & Brett, J. (2006). Managing challenges in multicultural teams. Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 9, 233-262.
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