Managing Multicultural Teams

By Allan Alter  |  Posted 04-26-2006

Though well-intentioned, some attempts to bridge cultural gaps on global teams just result in creating more sophisticated stereotypes. So say two professors at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass.—New Delhi native Donald Chand, professor of information and process management, and American-born Gary David, associate professor of sociology. The two researchers are studying how global, multicultural teams can avoid conflicts and work together more productively. Their advice, after studying IT organizations at four global companies: Focus on finding common ground, not differences.

CIO INSIGHT: What's wrong with focusing on cultural differences?
DAVID: It creates sophisticated stereotypes. Generalizing a national culture is inherently problematic, because it stereotypes the group it's meant to portray.
CHAND: The IT component of a finance company we studied added people from India to a project team that consisted of people from U.S. and Ireland. Very quickly, the manager observed the Indian team was not able to produce the way he expected. Timeliness was an issue. He assumed that because the attitude toward time in India is elastic, the Indians were not grasping the significance of deadlines. He resorted to micromanagement to make them conscious of the time issue.
DAVID: The manager thought it was because people in India aren't sensitive to time, but it was really because of their inexperience. The managers came to an incorrect conclusion because of the cultural training they had received.

But don't we need to understand cultural differences?
DAVID: Yes, relevant ones. Books on India talk about the caste system, but in our research we found no examples where the caste system was relevant, especially with the younger generation that works in IT. Cultural training has to focus on aspects of culture that are relevant to the workplace setting. Don't talk about India in general. Explore the relevant characteristics of the group that the people in the U.S. will work with, be it age, gender, or professional experience.

What steps should CIOs take to build understanding on global teams?
DAVID: Try to give people the skills to identify the relevant aspects of culture that are affecting the workplace relationship. Like age: You have a workforce in India that is roughly 25 to 30 years old, and a workforce in the U.S. (at the sites we looked at) that is roughly 40 to 45 years old. It could affect how they use technology, how they communicate through technology. Do they view each other as team members, or as having a client/vendor relationship? The people in India we've seen, even though they are supposed to be on the same team, still consider Americans their clients. And that may be why they are hesitant to say no, to offer suggestions, to disagree.

For example, what's more important if you want to get to know someone in Boston: understanding American history, or knowing about the Boston Red Sox? Obviously the Red Sox. Nevertheless, when we talk about training in India, you get these general descriptions of Indian culture, but nothing on cricket. Well, if you want people to have small talk, train them on the topics they can share. Companies should have training on baseball; if it's football season, on football, taught by one of their team members. Now you are creating a shared experience that can facilitate closer social relationships. And in the end, hopefully, you will achieve greater trust, which helps solve problems faster since people are more likely to contact one another with questions. It's less likely there will be a breakdown in communications. All this is based on small talk. If you can't do small talk, you can't do big talk.