Harvard Business Review Article Nov 1, 2006, Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, Mary C. Kern

Multicultural teams offer a number of advantages to international firms, including deep knowledge of different product markets, culturally sensitive customer service, and 24 hour work rotations.

But those advantages may be outweighed by problems stemming from cultural differences, which can seriously impair the effectiveness of a team or even bring it to a stalemate. How can managers best cope with culture-based challenges?

The authors conducted in-depth interviews with managers and members of multicultural teams from all over the world.

Drawing on their extensive research on dispute resolution and teamwork and those interviews, they identify four problem categories that can create barriers to a team’s success:

  • direct¬†versus indirect communication
  • trouble with accents and fluency
  • differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority
  • conflicting norms for decision making.

If a manager or a team member can pinpoint the root cause of the problem, he or she is likelier to select an appropriate strategy for solving it. The most successful teams and managers, the authors found, dealt with multicultural challenges in one of four ways

  1. adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them)
  2. structural intervention (changing the shape or makeup of the team)
  3. managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager)
  4. exit (removing a team member when other options have failed).

Which strategy is best depends on the particular circumstances, and each has potential complications. In general, though, managers who intervene early and set norms; teams and managers who try to engage everyone on the team; and teams that can see challenges as stemming from culture, not personality, succeed in solving culture-based problems with good humor and creativity. They are the likeliest to harvest the benefits inherent in multicultural teams.