Managing Culturally Diverse Teams

By Gwynne, Peter | Research-Technology Management, January-February 2009 | Go to article overview

Managing Culturally Diverse Teams


Gwynne, Peter, Research-Technology Management


When French company Groupe Bull prepared to merge with American firm Zenith Data Systems, American and French and engineers working for Bull discussed the difficulties of working with each other. As the Americans saw it, their French colleagues took an "analysis paralysis" approach to problem solving: They insisted on analyzing the problem completely and correctly before taking any action. Americans, in the French engineers' view, insisted on action from the start, often at the expense of fully understanding the problem.

Cultural disagreements of that type aren't necessarily insoluble. When an American software engineer started to work with a team of Israelis, for example, he was shocked by their argumentative approach toward him--until he realized that they took the same approach to each other. He adapted by imposing some structure on the team's work while allowing himself and his colleagues to express themselves naturally.

In another case, American and British members of a research team had violent disagreements over the speed at which they worked on a project; the Americans wanted to go full steam ahead while the Brits wished to advance more slowly in case they met serious pitfalls. Management accommodated both groups by setting an in-between speed that kept the project moving while allowing it to foresee problems.

And when a group of Japanese engineers encountered huge challenges cooperating with Indian engineers on a project for Infosys, they organized some training materials designed to stimulate the two groups to talk about their assumptions and experiences. The materials helped the two groups of engineers to understand each other's worldviews and to collaborative more effectively.

The Fusion Approach

In each case, leadership had unwittingly hit upon a particularly effective approach to managing diverse teams. Jeanne Brett, director of the Dispute Resolution Center at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, and Maddy Janssens of Belgium's Catholic University of Leuven, who devised the approach, call it fusion. They coined the term because of the concept's similarity to fusion cooking, which combines ingredients or cooking methods from different cultural traditions while preserving their distinct flavors, textures and forms of presentation.

In the management context, Brett explains, "Fusion is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation." Those elements ensure that teams reach their goals most effectively. In addition, Brett says, "We think we have some evidence that teams with fusion teamwork systems are more creative."

Managers of R&D groups--in North America and elsewhere--face multicultural situations with increasing frequency. In those situations, they must deal with the potential for multiple cultural clashes among team members. The fusion approach has the basic goal of allowing every member to make his or her contribution to achieving the team's goals. "Fusion teamwork allows differences to coexist and be talked about," Brett explains. "Then the ideas can be packaged."

Traditional Collaboration

Dealing with multicultural teams is hardly a new experience for R&D managers. Most organize collaborations in one of two ways. In the dominant (or subgroup) coalition model, a specific set of team members--which may or may not make up a majority of the team--directs the team's collection of information and decision making. "[A] dominant coalition sets the scene, overrides differences that are not in line with its logic, and suppresses other perspectives," wrote Brett and Janssens in the journal Group & Organization Management (31, 1, 2006). "This creates a less culturally intelligent team model because it discourages meaningful participation in information extraction and decision making."

The most common alternative approach, the integration and/or identity model, requires all team members to sublimate their cultural identities to that of the entire team by adopting "superordinate goals" based on their common interests. …

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