Friday, November 10, 2006

Challenges of Multi-Cultural Teams

I have written extensively on benefits of diversity for an organization. Yet, I have observed that a vast majority of companies or organizations do not have a diverse workforce – and many do not encourage diversity in their organization. Organizational leaders – CEO’s, Presidents are willing to talk about diversity – but the managers are reluctant to increase diversity in their organization. The reason for this reluctance is very simple – diversity within an organization is tough to manage.Most front line managers do not know how to manage a diverse workforce. Managers are afraid that they may fail or the team’s productivity will drop if they introduce new (diverse) members into their current teams. As a result, most managers do not encourage diversity within their organization. In my experience, I have seen most managers agree that business is difficult to manage when they have team members who are from different cultures.

Diversity can Lower Productivity

Cultural diversity can have both positive and negative impact on team productivity. While diversity can vastly improve productivity via increased creativity, better understanding of the problem, better solutions, better decisions, and increased effectiveness. However, the challenge of managing a diverse team leads to faulty management process – which reduces team productivity. Thus, the actual productivity can be expressed as:

Actual Productivity of diverse team = Homogenous team productivity + Gains due to diversity – Losses due to faulty management process.

Managers of culturally diverse teams must therefore understand the problems caused by cultural diversity.

Cultural diversity causes problems

Cultural diversity causes management problems. For most managers would like to be “Culturally Blind” – i.e. do not acknowledge cultural differences. When managers see the cultural difference, it of often for the wrong reasons.Having worked extensively in multi-cultural work environment, I have seen that most of the problems caused by diversity. The problem is often noticed during decision making times. The diverse teams often have difficult to reach consensus and make a common decision. These teams often suffer from:

  • Ambiguity
  • Lack of Preparedness
  • Confusion caused due to miscommunication
  • Over complexity – Add complexity to the existing problem
  • Inability to reach an agreement
  • Endless debate on the possible solution
  • Disagreement on specific action plans

These problems often make the manager and team members frustrated. Endless debates and arguments result in time overruns and cost overruns. As a result, the manager may become forced to take a wrong decision amid all that confusion.

In addition many organizations are unprepared to deal with cultural diversity. I have seen organization which implements policies, strategies, business practices and procedures without taking cultural differences into considerations. This often happens because managers are not made aware of culturally sensitive issues.

Often times managers are able to describe the problems caused by diversity – but most of them fail to root cause the problems. Essentially all problems caused by diversity occur during convergence phase of decision making – diverse teams find it difficult to converge on a problem statement and agree on the solution.

Diversity Creates Lack of Cohesion

Multicultural teams often have different views of the problem. Team members often go on debating about the problem statement. In the process, a diverse team will gain a rich insight – but fail to agree on the problem definition. This problem can be root caused to three basic factors:

  1. Mistrust
  2. Miscommunication
  3. Work Stress


Culturally diverse team members often tend to have lower levels of trust when compared to homogenous teams. A natural human tendency is to work closely with members of their own culture and not to trust people who are from different cultures. This mistrust is often reinforced by inaccurate stereotyping.

While working in Intel several years ago, new members of the team were added to the project. These were engineers working out of Puerto Rico. Engineers at Texas initially had low level of respect to their Puerto Rican counter parts. This was caused by the fact that the American Engineers had a low opinion of the quality of education in Puerto Rico. This generalization was a false stereotype – because all the engineers working on Puerto Rico were educated in the USA and had worked on complex projects before. Yet it took sometime for the American engineers to acknowledge the engineering capability of their Puerto Rican counter parts.

Another factor which adds to this mistrust is the tendency of team members to communicate more with members of their own cultures and avoid communicating with members of different culture.
Recently, I was interacting with a team of Indian Engineers who were working at a client location in London. During a meeting, a few members of team started talking among themselves in Marathi – a language which their British counterparts did not understand. This type of behavior leads to suspicion and destroys the trust between team members.


Multicultural teams are forced to communicate in a common language – its usually the language of the dominant group. It can be either in English or Spanish or Mandarin or Hindi or French etc. This implies that there are members in the team for whom the communicating language is not their native tongue. This often results in miscommunication between team members – where one member meant one thing, but said something else or it was understood differently. The problem can occur in translation errors.

In addition people tend not to describe all things explicitly – assuming that the other person can understand the implicit meanings. The net result is a lower accuracy in communication – which forces the team to reconfirm all communication between members that results in greater time lost during communication process.

Work Stress

Miscommunication and mistrust can create significant work stress on team members. Once team members are aware that there is a possibility of error in inter-team communications, then all decision making, problem analysis and deductions are at risk. This creates an enormous stress on employees.

In mono-culture teams, members can openly discuss problems and issues. Whereas in multicultural teams, members are afraid of offending other members – thus forcing a “polite diplomatic” approach to sensitive issues. This creates an artificial or a superficial behavior which increases stress on the organization. This forced politeness leaves team members frustrated and disengaged which effectively lowers work productivity.

Closing Thoughts

Diversity causes problems – but then diversity creates competitive advantages. Few global firms have realized the advantages of cultural diversity and have fully embraced it. US based firms such as Intel, Cisco, HP, Microsoft, Oracle, etc., have become truly multicultural – these companies have learnt to overcome the problems of diversity. But for companies which are just starting out in this workforce diversity path, the challenges are daunting. The solution is not easy – frontline managers and top management must embrace the need for diversity and have policies, procedures and practices to manage it.The best solution is to initially hire business consultants or senior managers who have experienced these challenges in the past. Business consultants – especially trans-cultural consultants, cross-cultural business consultants or organization development consultants.

Also See:

  1. Leadership & Diversity
  2. Building a Diverse Workforce
  3. Soft Skills For Global Managers
  4. Managing Diversity for High Performance
  5. Encourage Diversity to attract top talent
  6. Distinguish Yourself As a Culturally Diverse Candidate
  7. Leveraging Diversity-Use Brainstorming Session
  8. Common Mistakes in Recruiting a diverse workforce
  9. Making Multicultural Virtual Teams Work


bhargavi said...

Very nice Article.. It helped for my research paper on the same topic.

Kai said...

i enjoyed that.. keep up the good writing. !

antochan said...

Hey Arun,
Nice piece of work...It helped me to get some ideas in one of the papers that I was doing....

Thank you...Keep up the good work....

pavi said...

hey Arun, realy it's good helped me a lot to do assignment..keep up the gud work...

Sydney Babafemi said...

good job

Kyile rey said...

Definitely agree with what you stated. Your explanation was certainly the easiest to understand. I tell you, I usually get irked when folks discuss issues that they plainly do not know about. You managed to hit the nail right on the head and explained out everything without complication. Maybe, people can take a signal. Will likely be back to get more.

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