Chat with us, powered by LiveChat When a major international software developer needed to produce a new product quickly, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the United States. From t | WriteDen

When a major international software developer needed to produce a new product quickly, the project manager assembled a team of employees from India and the United States. From t

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84 harvard business review |

When a major international software developer needed to produce a new product quickly, the project

manager assembled a team of employees from India and

the United States. From the start the team members

could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The

Americans thought the work could be done in two to

three weeks; the Indians predicted it would take two

to three months. As time went on, the Indian team mem-

bers proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production

process, which the American team members would find

out about only when work was due to be passed to them.

Such conflicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this

case they arose from cultural differences. As tensions

mounted, conflict over delivery dates and feedback be-

came personal, disrupting team members’ communica-

tion about even mundane issues. The project manager

decided he had to intervene–with the result that both the

American and the Indian team members came to rely on

him for direction regarding minute operational details

Teams whose members come from different nations and backgrounds place special demands on managers – especially when a feuding team looks to the boss for help with a conflict.

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






Teams Managing









Managing Multicultural Teams

that the team should have been able to handle itself. The

manager became so bogged down by quotidian issues

that the project careened hopelessly off even the most

pessimistic schedule–and the team never learned to work

together effectively.

Multicultural teams often generate frustrating manage-

ment dilemmas.Cultural differences can create substantial

obstacles to effective teamwork–but these may be subtle

and difficult to recognize until significant damage has al-

ready been done. As in the case above, which the manager

involved told us about, managers may create more prob-

lems than they resolve by intervening. The challenge in

managing multicultural teams effectively is to recognize

underlying cultural causes of conflict, and to intervene in

ways that both get the team back on track and empower

its members to deal with future challenges themselves.

We interviewed managers and members of multicul-

tural teams from all over the world. These interviews,

combined with our deep research on dispute resolution

and teamwork, led us to conclude that the wrong kind of

managerial intervention may sideline valuable members

who should be participating or, worse, create resistance,

resulting in poor team performance. We’re not talking

here about respecting differing national standards for

doing business, such as accounting practices. We’re refer-

ring to day-to-day working problems among team mem-

bers that can keep multicultural teams from realizing

the very gains they were set up to harvest, such as knowl-

edge of different product markets, culturally sensitive

customer service, and 24-hour work rotations.

The good news is that cultural challenges are manage-

able if managers and team members choose the right

strategy and avoid imposing single-culture-based ap-

proaches on multicultural situations.

The Challenges People tend to assume that challenges on multicultural

teams arise from differing styles of communication. But

this is only one of the four categories that, according to

our research, can create barriers to a team’s ultimate suc-

cess. These categories are direct versus indirect communi-

cation; trouble with accents and fluency; differing atti-

tudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conflicting

norms for decision making.

Direct versus indirect communication. Communica-

tion in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit.

The meaning is on the surface, and a listener doesn’t have

to know much about the context or the speaker to inter-

pret it. This is not true in many other cultures, where

meaning is embedded in the way the message is pre-

sented. For example, Western negotiators get crucial in-

formation about the other party’s preferences and pri-

orities by asking direct questions, such as “Do you prefer

option A or option B?” In cultures that use indirect com-

munication, negotiators may have to infer preferences

and priorities from changes – or the lack of them – in the

other party’s settlement proposal. In cross-cultural nego-

tiations, the non-Westerner can understand the direct

communications of the Westerner, but the Westerner

has difficulty understanding the indirect communications

of the non-Westerner.

An American manager who was leading a project to

build an interface for a U.S. and Japanese customer-data

system explained the problems her team was having this

way: “In Japan, they want to talk and discuss. Then we

take a break and they talk within the organization. They

want to make sure that there’s harmony in the rest of

the organization. One of the hardest lessons for me was

when I thought they were saying yes but they just meant

‘I’m listening to you.’”

The differences between direct and indirect communi-

cation can cause serious damage to relationships when

team projects run into problems. When the American

manager quoted above discovered that several flaws in

the system would significantly disrupt company opera-

tions, she pointed this out in an e-mail to her American

boss and the Japanese team members. Her boss appreci-

ated the direct warnings; her Japanese colleagues were

embarrassed, because she had violated their norms for

uncovering and discussing problems. Their reaction was

to provide her with less access to the people and informa-

tion she needed to monitor progress. They would proba-

bly have responded better if she had pointed out the

problems indirectly – for example, by asking them what

would happen if a certain part of the system was not func-

tioning properly, even though she knew full well that it

was malfunctioning and also what the implications were.

As our research indicates is so often true, communi-

cation challenges create barriers to effective teamwork

by reducing information sharing, creating interpersonal

conflict, or both. In Japan, a typical response to direct con-

frontation is to isolate the norm violator. This American

manager was isolated not just socially but also physically.

She told us, “They literally put my office in a storage

room, where I had desks stacked from floor to ceiling and

I was the only person there. So they totally isolated me,

which was a pretty loud signal to me that I was not a part

of the inside circle and that they would communicate

with me only as needed.”

86 harvard business review |

Jeanne Brett is the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations and the direc-

tor of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illi-

nois. Kristin Behfar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California at Irvine.

Mary C. Kern is an assistant professor at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in New York.








Managing Multicultural Teams

Her direct approach had been intended to solve a prob-

lem, and in one sense, it did, because her project was

launched problem-free. But her norm violations exacer-

bated the challenges of working with her Japanese col-

leagues and limited her ability to uncover any other prob-

lems that might have derailed the project later on.

Trouble with accents and fluency. Although the lan-

guage of international business is English, misunderstand-

ings or deep frustration may occur because of nonnative

speakers’ accents, lack of fluency, or problems with trans-

lation or usage. These may also influence perceptions of

status or competence.

For example, a Latin American member of a multicul-

tural consulting team lamented, “Many times I felt that

because of the language difference, I didn’t have the

words to say some things that I was thinking. I noticed

that when I went to these interviews with the U.S. guy,

he would tend to lead the interviews, which was under-

standable but also disappointing, because we are at the

same level. I had very good questions, but he would take

the lead.”

When we interviewed an American member of a U.S.-

Japanese team that was assessing the potential expan-

sion of a U.S. retail chain into Japan, she described one

American teammate this way: “He was not interested in

the Japanese consultants’ feedback and felt that because

they weren’t as fluent as he was, they weren’t intelligent

enough and, therefore, could add no value.” The team

member described was responsible for assessing one as-

pect of the feasibility of expansion into Japan. Without

input from the Japanese experts, he risked overestimating

opportunities and underestimating challenges.

Nonfluent team members may well be the most expert

on the team, but their difficulty communicating knowl-

edge makes it hard for the team to recognize and utilize

their expertise. If teammates become frustrated or impa-

tient with a lack of fluency, interpersonal conflicts can

arise. Nonnative speakers may become less motivated to

contribute, or anxious about their performance evalua-

tions and future career prospects. The organization as a

whole pays a greater price: Its investment in a multicul-

tural team fails to pay off.

Some teams, we learned, use language differences to

resolve (rather than create) tensions. A team of U.S. and

Latin American buyers was negotiating with a team from

a Korean supplier. The negotiations took place in Korea,

but the discussions were conducted in English. Frequently

the Koreans would caucus at the table by speaking Ko-

rean. The buyers, frustrated, would respond by appearing

to caucus in Spanish – though they discussed only incon-

sequential current events and sports, in case any of the

Koreans spoke Spanish. Members of the team who didn’t

speak Spanish pretended to participate, to the great

amusement of their teammates. This approach proved ef-

fective: It conveyed to the Koreans in an appropriately

indirect way that their caucuses in Korean were frustrat-

ing and annoying to the other side. As a result, both teams

cut back on sidebar conversations.

Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority. A challenge inherent in multicultural teamwork is that

by design, teams have a rather flat structure. But team

members from some cultures, in which people are treated

differently according to their status in an organization,

are uncomfortable on flat teams. If they defer to higher-

status team members, their behavior will be seen as ap-

propriate when most of the team comes from a hierar-

chical culture; but they may damage their stature and

credibility – and even face humiliation – if most of the

team comes from an egalitarian culture.

One manager of Mexican heritage, who was working

on a credit and underwriting team for a bank, told us,“In

Mexican culture, you’re always supposed to be humble. So

whether you understand something or not, you’re sup-

posed to put it in the form of a question. You have to keep

it open-ended, out of respect. I think that actually worked

against me, because the Americans thought I really didn’t

know what I was talking about. So it made me feel like

they thought I was wavering on my answer.”

When, as a result of differing cultural norms, team

members believe they’ve been treated disrespectfully,

the whole project can blow up. In another Korean-U.S.

negotiation, the American members of a due diligence

team were having difficulty getting information from

their Korean counterparts, so they complained directly to

higher-level Korean management, nearly wrecking the

deal. The higher-level managers were offended because

hierarchy is strictly adhered to in Korean organizations

and culture. It should have been their own lower-level

people, not the U.S. team members, who came to them

with a problem. And the Korean team members were

mortified that their bosses had been involved before they

themselves could brief them. The crisis was resolved only

when high-level U.S. managers made a trip to Korea, con-

veying appropriate respect for their Korean counterparts.

november 2006 87

Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit. In many other cultures, meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented. The differences can cause serious damage to team relationships.

manent or temporary? Does the team’s manager have the

autonomy to make a decision about changing the team in

some way? Once the situational conditions have been an-

alyzed, the team’s leader can identify an appropriate re-

sponse (see the exhibit “Identifying the Right Strategy”).

Adaptation. Some teams find ways to work with or

around the challenges they face, adapting practices or at-

titudes without making changes to the group’s mem-

bership or assignments. Adaptation works when team

members are willing to acknowledge and name their cul-

tural differences and to assume responsibility for figur-

ing out how to live with them. It’s often the best possible

approach to a problem, because it typically involves less

managerial time than other strategies; and because team

members participate in solving the problem themselves,

they learn from the process. When team members have

this mind-set, they can be creative about protecting their

own substantive differences while acceding to the pro-

cesses of others.

An American software engineer located in Ireland who

was working with an Israeli account management team

from his own company told us how shocked he was by the

Israelis’ in-your-face style: “There were definitely different

ways of approaching issues and discussing them. There is

something pretty common to the Israeli culture: They

like to argue. I tend to try to collaborate more, and it got

very stressful for me until I figured out how to kind of

merge the cultures.”

The software engineer adapted. He imposed some

structure on the Israelis that helped him maintain his

own style of being thoroughly prepared; that accommo-

dation enabled him to accept the Israeli style. He also no-

ticed that team members weren’t just confronting him;

they confronted one another but were able to work to-

gether effectively nevertheless. He realized that the con-

frontation was not personal but cultural.

In another example, an American member of a post-

merger consulting team was frustrated by the hierarchy

of the French company his team was working with. He

felt that a meeting with certain French managers who

were not directly involved in the merger “wouldn’t deliver

any value to me or for purposes of the project,” but said

that he had come to understand that “it was very impor-

tant to really involve all the people there” if the integra-

tion was ultimately to work.

A U.S. and UK multicultural team tried to use their dif-

fering approaches to decision making to reach a higher-

Conflicting norms for decision making. Cultures dif-

fer enormously when it comes to decision making–partic-

ularly, how quickly decisions should be made and how

much analysis is required beforehand. Not surprisingly,

U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and

with relatively little analysis by comparison with manag-

ers from other countries.

A Brazilian manager at an American company who

was negotiating to buy Korean products destined for

Latin America told us, “On the first day, we agreed on

three points, and on the second day, the U.S.-Spanish side

wanted to start with point four.But the Korean side wanted

to go back and rediscuss points one through three. My

boss almost had an attack.”

What U.S. team members learn from an experience like

this is that the American way simply cannot be imposed

on other cultures. Managers from other cultures may, for

example, decline to share information until they under-

stand the full scope of a project. But they have learned

that they can’t simply ignore the desire of their American

counterparts to make decisions quickly. What to do? The

best solution seems to be to make minor concessions on

process–to learn to adjust to and even respect another ap-

proach to decision making.For example,American manag-

ers have learned to keep their impatient bosses away from

team meetings and give them frequent if brief updates.

A comparable lesson for managers from other cultures is

to be explicit about what they need – saying, for example,

“We have to see the big picture before we talk details.”

Four Strategies The most successful teams and managers we interviewed

used four strategies for dealing with these challenges:

adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and

working around them), structural intervention (changing

the shape of the team), managerial intervention (setting

norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and

exit (removing a team member when other options have

failed). There is no one right way to deal with a particular

kind of multicultural problem; identifying the type of

challenge is only the first step. The more crucial step is

assessing the circumstances – or “enabling situational

conditions”–under which the team is working. For exam-

ple, does the project allow any flexibility for change, or do

deadlines make that impossible? Are there additional re-

sources available that might be tapped? Is the team per-

88 harvard business review |

Managing Multicultural Teams

Team members who are uncomfortable on flat teams may, by deferring to higher-status teammates, damage their stature and credibility – and even face humiliation – if most of the team is from an egalitarian culture.

including the most unlikely, while the U.S. members

chomped at the bit and muttered about analysis paralysis.

The strength of this team was that some of its members

were willing to forge ahead and some were willing to

work through pitfalls. To accommodate them all, the

team did both–moving not quite as fast as the U.S. mem-

bers would have on their own and not quite as thor-

oughly as the UK members would have.

Structural intervention. A structural intervention is

a deliberate reorganization or reassignment designed to

reduce interpersonal friction or to remove a source of

conflict for one or more groups. This approach can be

quality decision. This approach, called fusion, is getting

serious attention from political scientists and from gov-

ernment officials dealing with multicultural populations

that want to protect their cultures rather than integrate

or assimilate. If the team had relied exclusively on the

Americans’“forge ahead”approach, it might not have rec-

ognized the pitfalls that lay ahead and might later have

had to back up and start over. Meanwhile, the UK mem-

bers would have been gritting their teeth and saying “We

told you things were moving too fast.” If the team had

used the “Let’s think about this” UK approach, it might

have wasted a lot of time trying to identify every pitfall,








Managing Multicultural Teams

november 2006 89

Identifying the Right Strategy The most successful teams and managers we interviewed use four strategies for dealing with problems: adaptation

(acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them), structural intervention (changing the shape of the

team), managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team

member when other options have failed). Adaptation is the ideal strategy because the team works effectively to

solve its own problem with minimal input from management – and, most important, learns from the experience. The

guide below can help you identify the right strategy once you have identified both the problem and the “enabling

situational conditions” that apply to the team.


• Conflict arises from decision-

making differences

• Misunderstanding or stone-

walling arises from commu-

nication differences

• The team is affected by emo-

tional tensions relating to flu-

ency issues or prejudice

• Team members are inhibited

by perceived status differ-

ences among teammates

• Violations of hierarchy have

resulted in loss of face

• An absence of ground rules

is causing conflict

• A team member cannot ad-

just to the challenge at hand

and has become unable to

contribute to the project


• Team members can attribute a

challenge to culture rather than


• Higher-level managers are not

available or the team would be

embarrassed to involve them

• The team can be subdivided

to mix cultures or expertise

• Tasks can be subdivided

• The problem has produced

a high level of emotion

• The team has reached

a stalemate

• A higher-level manager is able

and willing to intervene

• The team is permanent rather

than temporary

• Emotions are beyond the point

of intervention

• Too much face has been lost


• Team members must

be exceptionally aware

• Negotiating a common

understanding takes


• If team members aren’t

carefully distributed, sub-

groups can strengthen

preexisting differences

• Subgroup solutions

have to fit back together

• The team becomes

overly dependent

on the manager

• Team members may

be sidelined or resistant

• Talent and training

costs are lost



Structural Intervention

Managerial Intervention


Managing Multicultural Teams

extremely effective when obvious subgroups demarcate

the team (for example, headquarters versus national

subsidiaries) or if team members are proud, defensive,

threatened, or clinging to negative stereotypes of one


A member of an investment research team scattered

across continental Europe, the UK, and the U.S. described

for us how his manager resolved conflicts stemming from

status differences and language tensions among the

team’s three “tribes.” The manager started by having

the team meet face-to-face twice a year, not to


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