Managing Teams


By Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, and Mary C. Kern

Companies that conduct international business must learn how to lead teams with members of different cultural backgrounds. This requires an understanding of the following common multicultural team challenges:

*Direct versus indirect communication. Western-style communication is often direct and explicit, whereas other cultures communicate by embedding meaning in the way the message is presented. Differences in communication styles can reduce information sharing.

*Trouble with accents and fluency. Misunderstandings and deep frustration can arise because of nonnative speakers’ accents, lack of fluency, or translation problems.

*Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. Hierarchical cultures and egalitarian cultures have different expectations about how members should be treated. When these cultural expectations are not honored, it can cause humiliation or loss of credibility.

*Conflicting norms for decision making. Different cultures vary in how quickly they make decisions and how much analysis they require beforehand.

The four most successful strategies for handling multicultural team conflicts include:

1. Adaptation. This requires teams to acknowledge cultural gaps openly and work around them. This is the most ideal strategy because the team works effectively to solve its own problems with little input from management.

2. Structural intervention. This is the deliberate reorganization or reassignment of a team to reduce interpersonal friction or remove a source of conflict. It is the best solution for when team members become defensive or threatened.

3. Managerial intervention. This involves the manager stepping in to help team members resolve problems. This is especially effective at the beginning of a team’s development as it allows effective processes and rules to be established.

4. Exit. Leaving a team is a final option for unhappy team members. It is best to exit long-term projects that cannot be completed or when too much “face” has been lost to salvage the situation.


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