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Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.

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Effective Multicultural Teams

Ever wondered why you get that bitter-sweet taste in your mouth at the completion of a successful mega project that went well?

You worked hard, iArabic Man Standing With Businesspeoplen fact the whole team worked hard and reached its objectives, but you don’t think any of the team members really want to work together again and certainly not with you as their leader.

I recently spoke to a German who had just relocated to Zug, Switzerland from northern Germany. His intention had been to have a one-day workshop to learn more about Swiss communication techniques and working methods. During our pre-workshop phone conversation, we quickly realized that as often occurs to expats moving to Zug, he was not really going to be working with many Swiss people at all; his boss would be a woman from the USA, his assistant a young Malaysian and the rest of the team would be made up of a Greek, an Italian, a Norwegian and an Indian.

Well, so much for learning about Swiss communication techniques, I guess we could throw that idea out the window.

Zug’s population has close to doubled over the last 40 years. Today it has a population of around 110,000 made up of around 120 nationalities.[1] Zug has become such an international hub that more and more HR departments are requesting training for their employees that is no longer specific to working just in Switzerland, but rather how to make their multicultural teams more effective.

So what’s all the fuss about you might say. Why do multicultural teams need any particular training at all, surely the people who are selected to work abroad or to manage an international team are there because they are interculturally competent, right? Not always.

 

What does it take to make a multicultural team highly effective?

In their book, Intercultural Readiness, Ursula Brinkmann and Oscar van Weerdenburg[2], state that compared to a monocultural team, a multicultural team can be either highly effective or highly ineffective. Although most of us imagine that multicultural teams outperform monocultural teams consistently because we assume they have more creative ideas and different perspectives to add to the table, these teams often have quite a few hindrances that don’t consistently get in the way of monocultural teams. Although these teams do sometimes reach their task-related objective, they usually do not wish to work together a second time round[3]. So the benefits of their success is lived short term.

If we agree that a strong team needs good communication, trust and an understanding of how to resolve conflict, then we see how multicultural teams may underperform.

Leading directors pull together these project-based teams from all parts of the globe eager to bring together multiple creative ideas. However what they fail to question is how the group of such diverse cultures will actually collaborate, communicate and reach personal objectives, three themes that are rarely discussed openly before the project kicks off. These ‘dream-teams’ are usually shaped by people who have differences in age, gender, national culture, religion and professional background and each of these individuals has varying needs in terms of personal satisfaction and development.

Let’s look at the question of communication. Individuals of diverse cultures would generally have varying methods of communication. For example, one would ask herself, “Is it appropriate to speak up in a team meeting if I disagree with my boss even though I am the expert in the matter or shall I keep quiet (because of my respect for hierarchy)?” “Will I speak up if a deadline cannot be met, or do I not want to take ownership and responsibility for that?” “As a manager should I give feedback publicly to each individual including somebody who may be older than I am?” “Should I use brainstorming techniques for finding ideas or will that place some individuals ill at ease because in their culture it is not the accepted thing?”

When we work in monocultural teams we take our communication methods almost for granted expecting all colleagues to be comfortable communicating in a similar fashion. For example, a person who is brought up in a culture that likes brainstorming sessions, in an environment where people speak their mind and throw out ideas at such sessions, (irrespective of whether they are an Associate Director or an Assistant) would tend to lead a group believing these kind of sessions are the best way forward. Does that person take into consideration the team member who may have joined from perhaps a Japanese background and environment where often communication is only vertical (usually only downward and seldom would somebody speak their mind in such an environment)? The manager of a truly multicultural team would rarely get much input from each member in such a brainstorming session and would therefore need to devise another method of communication for this team in order to make the fortnightly meetings effective. He/she would need to create a method of communication that is comfortable and appropriate for all concerned – not my way, not your way; our way – cultural collaboration.

Let’s look at trust; How do we create trust in monocultural teams? I guess Monday morning in the office is the typical one that most of us can relate to. Discussing sports results at the coffee machine or discussing the latest film that we went to see on Saturday evening or even our child’s failed math test. As we get to know our colleagues we learn to confide in them and accept their ideas as worthwhile. Multicultural teams often do not get the opportunity to get to know their colleagues very well. Sometimes because they are based on different continents and only communicate virtually and then usually in written format where personal thoughts and feelings are usually left out or difficult to interpret. Sometimes it is just that we do not always take the necessary steps to get to know somebody who seems so different to us; what would a female generation X HR manager from Zurich have in common with a generation Y IT expert from Mumbai? Lack of trust and cohesion is often a cause for multicultural teams not wanting to work together on a second project[4].

So if these are just a couple of examples of what may make a multicultural team ineffective, how do we actually make such a team effective so that we can really get the most out of these culturally diverse teams and at the same time give each individual the chance to develop and want to work with her or his colleagues again?

The strength of highly effective multicultural teams is that they create a third culture, one that each member can adhere to as the culture of that specific project team. A culture where items such as how to deal with conflict are discussed or, “I as the manager of this team will not be offended if the team members question my ideas in a team meeting”.

Multicultural teams are effective when all team members are interculturally competent, i.e. they are culturally aware of differences and they know how to switch communication and work techniques to build trust across the different cultures within their team.

So at your kick-off meeting for that dream-team being created in Zug to work on a project in Tokyo, consider the theme of reaching cultural collaboration – create a third culture.

References

[1] www.zg.ch/portraet/leute (15 August 2015)

[2, 3 and 4] U. Brinkmann and O. Van Weerdenburg (2014), ‘Intercultural Readiness, four competences for working across cultures’, chapter 6, pp. 135-175