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Managing the Melting Pot

Leveraging the expertise of individuals from around the world by pulling together multicultural teams can often frustrate managers.  Cultural differences inherent to these teams generate substantial obstacles which can threaten the effectiveness of the team and diminish an organization's return on its investment.  Differences in communication techniques, language barriers and decision making strategies are commonly at the root of many problems.

Kristin Behfar, assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at UCI, recently participated in a study to identify the challenges that lead to the breakdown of multicultural teams. Four key problem areas surfaced.

  • Direct versus indirect communication - In Western cultures communication is typically direct and explicit.  In other cultures, the meaning may be embedded in the way the message is presented.  In cross-cultural negotiations, the Westerner may have difficulty understanding the indirect approach leading to miscommunications.
  • Trouble with accents and fluency - While English is the language of international business, misunderstandings or deep frustration may occur because of a nonnative speaker's accent, lack of fluency or problems with translation or usage.  These may also influence perceptions of status or competence which could lead to even bigger problems for the multicultural team.
  • Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority - Teams, by design, have a rather flat structure.  This organizational structure may be uncomfortable for team members from hierarchical cultures where people are treated differently according to their status.  In addition, hierarchical cultures tend to defer to superior persons for direction, while team members from an egalitarian culture might view this as a weakness.
  • Conflicting norms for decision making - The speed at which a decision is made and the amount of analysis required beforehand varies enormously from one culture to another.  U.S. managers tend to make decisions very quickly and with relatively little analysis, while managers from other cultures may decline to share information until they understand the full scope of a project.


Choosing the right strategy to overcome these problems requires managers to consider the challenges and the conditions affecting the team. Even after a strategy is identified, they must be on the look out for complicating factors which may hinder progress or the team's ability to implement the selected strategy.


  • Adaptation - This strategy acknowledges cultural gaps openly and develops ways to works around them. It is best used to solve problems involving decision making differences, misunderstandings or stonewalling that have developed due to cultural rather than personal differences.  Negotiating a common understanding can take time and team members must be exceptionally aware for this strategy to be effective.


  • Structural Intervention - Changing the physical shape of a team can eliminate problems by removing the barriers to success or facilitating a smoother delivery.  Reorganizing a team deliberately or removing a hierarchical threat can eliminate emotional tensions related to fluency issues or prejudice.  Even inhibitions created by perceived status differences can be eliminated.  If the structural intervention chosen involves subdividing teams, managers need to be sure that the subgroups fit back together and that the subdivision itself does not work to strengthen preexisting differences.


  • Managerial Intervention - Setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager, provided hierarchies are respected, can effectively sort out problems.  This strategy works best when violations of hierarchy have resulted in a perceived loss of face and when the absence of ground rules is causing conflict.  Problems that are emotionally charged or that have resulted in a stalemate are best resolved using managerial intervention.  This strategy however makes it difficult to empower a team and some team members may be sidelined or resistant to this approach.


  • Exit - To salvage an emotionally charged situation, where too much face has been lost on both sides, the strategy of removing a team member is sometimes best.  It is especially effective with permanent teams that have a member who cannot adjust or is unable to contribute to a project.  The downside of this strategy is that the talent of the removed team member is lost to the group as are the training costs involved.


Cultural differences can be very serious and severely impact a team's ability to function.  The good news is, by avoiding single-culture biases and choosing the right strategy, the full potential of a multicultural team can be realized.


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