Monday, July 10, 2006

Managing Diversity for High Performance

In my previous article, I had written about the need to create a diverse teams and what can be done to build a culturally diverse team. As a feedback to this article, Mr. Peter Petzal from 2CInternational, raised a valid point that creating a culturally diverse team alone does not ensure success. This forms the basis of this article - where we can take a deeper look into how a culturally diverse team can be managed for performance.

It has been observed that not all multicultural teams are successful or equally productive. Some multicultural teams are highly productive, while some are a disaster. By observing these successful and those not-so-successful multicultural teams for an extended period of time and from my experience in working in a multicultural environment, I have come to some conclusions which will be described below. Please bear in mind that there may be other important reasons which may cause the success or failure of multi-culture teams.

Team Creation

Success of a team has a lot to do with the team creation. How the multicultural team is created has a huge impact on the performance of the team.

In many organizations, the management is in a hurry to create a diverse team. As a quick way, a team is created such that there is at least one representative from every culture or diverse groups. Such teams often fail. This representative teams are created on ad-hoc basis with little synergy between the team members. As a result, management of the team becomes difficult and members see little reason to collaborate.

Basic Parameters

Creating a culturally diverse team and identifying the team leader must be done carefully. All members of the team must have above average communication skills, must be able to acknowledge the fact that other members of the team may have different views/opinions, and must have a open mind to create a new social norms for interacting. This forms the foundation of creating a successful multicultural team.

Capability based selection

Members selected into a diverse team must have synergetic skill sets. Members must be solely selected on their task related abilities. A wide disparity among the members experience, abilities and education creates a negative environment and causes tensions within the team.

Typically, every successful multicultural team will have diverse viewpoints or attitudes but the team will be homogenous in ability levels. Such a team can then take advantage of its diverse opinions and once a decision is made, the members can trust the other members to execute the task.

Overcoming Differences

Team members must have the basic understanding that different members of their team will have different opinions - and these opinions are based on their cultural background, past experiences and their perception of reality. In a diverse team most members will have a different opinion. This fact must be accepted and respected by all team members. Those who do not tolerate differences should not be members of this team.

Many times team members become intolerant to those who have different opinions than their own - this is mainly due to the ignorance and a parochial attitude. Having better communication skills will help members overcome cultural differences. In some cases, team building exercises are necessary during the team forming days to help members get rid of their initial apprehensions.

A key requirement for success is that members of a multicultural team must acknowledge cultural differences among themselves. No member of the team must be allowed to stereotype other member of the team - every member must have a basic understand & appreciate of other member’s culture.


Many years ago while working with a team developing a Network processor. I had seen first hand the need to recognize cultural differences. Our team had members from India, China, Peru, USA, Israel, Russia, Ukraine, Taiwan, Vietnam, Korea and Pakistan. Given the diversity in their nationalities, there were several things common among the members:

  • All had similar educational backgrounds - MSEE from American Universities
  • All had very good communication skills - Excellent command over English language
  • All had an open mind to see & understand cultural differences. No member got offended by other’s habits or preferences
  • Excellent team leadership: My manger was capable of working with such diversity and had the required leadership skills to steer the team to success.
Leadership Skills

Team formation is just one half of the requirement for success. The other half is leadership.

Team leader must be capable of creating synergy among team members by identifying each member’s strength and weakness and using the team members such that everyone’s best talents are utilized. He must be able overcome any of this internal prejudices by acknowledging the cultural differences and must create a goal for rest of the members.
The chosen team leader must have at least these four abilities:
  1. Establish a Vision
  2. Create Mutual respect
  3. Equalize power among members
  4. Give a honest feedback
Establish a Vision or a Common Goal

In the initial days, most multicultural teams will have difficulty in establishing the goals and also the means to achieve these goals. Members will have difficulty in agreeing to the purpose. Any initial misunderstanding must be resolved quickly. This is where members will look upon the team leader. A leader must be able to clearly establish the goal, the purpose of achieving the goal and get everyone's buy-in on it.

Intel - which is a culturally diverse organization has developed a unique way of overcoming cultural differences in establishing common goals. In Intel, the team leader is the final authority in making the final making decision - but before making the decision, he/she must consult with all members of the team and try to get consensus. Once the final decision is made, no member of the team can oppose the idea - and every member is then committed to the agreed goals even if the individual does not agree with the idea. This is called "Disagree but Commit": i.e. Members may disagree initially but once the goal is set all members are committed towards that goal.
The common goal which is set by the team leader must be defined broadly and give a general direction and focus to the team’s activities. Achieving these goals will require collaboration and cooperation between members - this helps in reducing prejudices and increases mutual respect.

Create Mutual respect

Most people in this world will have a belief that their culture is superior than that of the others. In addition, people’s view are often distorted due to their cultural background. This ethnocentrism reflects a view of things in which one’s own culture is the center of everything and others are scaled & rated with reference to it. This prejudice is harmful and dangerous to the cohesion of the team.

The role of the team leader is to decrease prejudices by increasing the opportunity of contacts between members - this creates a cross ethnic acceptance and friendship. Thus creating a mutual respect between team members. Care should be taken to ensure that people who are interacting with each other have similar or equal skill sets. This reduces the chances of judgments by members based on stereotypes.

Equalizing Power

For a team to work in cohesion, no ethnic group within a team must be given disproportionate power. If one group has more power than others, it results in cultural dominance of one group over the others. Thus forcing members of subjugated group complain of favoritism or glass ceiling etc.

Team leader must ensure that the power within the team is equally distributed. The distribution of power, tasks and associated authority must be clearly explained to all members - while ensuring that the tasks assigned are inline with the member’s ability to perform.

Giving Feedback

Culturally diverse teams often have difficulty in collectively agreeing on the tasks or agreeing on what constitutes a good decision. The team leader’s role in such a situation is to clearly explain the rational behind each idea and convince those who are skeptical. This is achieved by providing timely feedback in private or at times in public. Leaders must give positive feedback on the chosen process/path and goals to individuals and the team. By this I mean, the leader should not criticize other’s ideas - instead he must explain why the chosen idea is better. A rule of thumb - Leaders must avoid negative feedback and rely mostly on positive feedback

Closing Thoughts

Culturally diverse teams are capable of producing superior performance when compared to homogenous teams. Organizations around the world are recognizing the value of a culturally diverse teams and are actively promoting diversity. However, care must be taken to ensure that the team can perform by removing: mistrust, misunderstandings, miscommunications, stress and lack of cohesion.
Diversity when well managed will produce a superior result. To check the validity of this statement - just see the development teams of all the successful products around you: Adobe Photoshop, Intel Centrino, Windows XP, etc.

Also See:

  1. Building a diverse Workforce
  2. Leadership & Diversity
  3. Why have International work experience?
  4. Global Manager
  5. Women's day: A brief history and Implication to firms
  6. Developing a Global Mindset
  7. Leadership for a Global Enterprise
  8. Global Product Development Teams
  9. Value of International Work Experience
  10. Global Careers and Culture Shock
  11. Role of Leadership in Team building
  12. Building a company of Leaders
  13. International Staffing Strategy

1 comment:

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