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Working in multicultural teams: A case study

Diversity and inclusion

Academic literature often discusses working in a multicultural team as an “issue” to be managed by a team leader in order to reduce team conflict and maximise its creative collaborative potential. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

The literature portrays team members’ countries of origin as creating cultural “differences’ which may lead to different expectations (for example in relation to communication styles) and manner of working. But where does individual personality fit into this discussion? And what impact does it have when the majority of the team are each from different racial backgrounds? And are there hidden benefits and impacts that have been overlooked by focussing on managers rather than team members themselves?

Deloitte Australia had the opportunity to consider these questions following the establishment of a “new” team working on a 3 month project on assignment in NSW, Australia. The project team comprised of 7 members from Spain (the team leader), Australia, Japan, the United States and Germany (the team members), as well as the client who was from Australia. Intriguingly, it appears that the expectation of cultural differences caused team members to become more conscious of their own behaviours and to become more flexible and adaptive. Moreover, cultural diversity provided a unique point of connectivity and enjoyment.  

Aim

This Case Study aimed to examine the diverse range of perspectives about working in a multicultural team, from the team members themselves, to the team manager and the client. In particular, the aim was to examine how each person’s behaviour was perceived (i.e. was it perceived through the lens of their country of origin or the personality?), whether the experience as a whole was more likely to be perceived pessimistically (i.e. in terms of affective and interactional problems) or optimistically (i.e. in terms of creativity, quality and innovative task performance), what enabled successful interactions and what posed a challenge. The aim was not to test a specific hypothesis, but to adopt an open and exploratory approach.

Method

The Case Study was conducted using a 360 degree interview methodology where project team members, the team manager and the client were asked to discuss four questions, namely:

  • Do you think that culture was relevant to interactions within the team?
  • Did cultural diversity enhance the work experience for you, or did it make work more challenging/difficult?
  • Do you think that workplace employee traits are more closely aligned with cultural background, or personality?
  • What have you learnt about working in a culturally-diverse team?

The project team was newly formed and created for a set task and for a set period (3 months). Each team member was highly educated and had lived and worked in their country of origin, and hence had been “acculturated” ‘ to their place of birth.

Findings

All of the interviewees concluded that the diversity of the project team contributed positively to both task performance and process outcomes (i.e. overall team cohesiveness), but perhaps not in a way that is commonly discussed in academic literature. We found four key insights, each of which is discussed in detail below:

  1. Cultural and/or personality diversity is in the eye of the beholder
  2. Cultural diversity can positively contribute to people’s professional and personal enjoyment of the project, as well as a project’s outcome
  3. Cultural diversity can indirectly encourage project members to rethink their usual working habits and expectations, behave with fewer assumptions about the “right” way to address an issue and promote linguistic clarity
  4. The dominance of cultural diversity amongst team members reduces the bias to interact with people who have common characteristics and create a unique bond.

1. Cultural and/or personality diversity is in the eye of the beholder

The academic literature seems to suggest that country of origin will be the salient factor in a multicultural group and have a dominant influence on an individual’s mindsets and behaviours. More particularly it is assumed that in a culturally diverse group, cultural norms will create confusion or conflict, or alternatively, creative insights into markets and products. In contrast, the project members in the Case Study revealed a full spectrum of opinions as to whether individual differences were personality determined, culturally determined or both. For example:

(a) Personality determined “I do not think our cultural background was relevant to the way we interacted as a team. I rather think our personality derived from our experience was the key factor. For example, B and D are both Australians but showed very different approaches to work” (Japanese team member).“It's not about nationality but personality. It is about understanding what each person needs to work to their best. It's about knowing people, adapting and reading people” (Australian client).

(b) Culturally determined: “I think culture was very relevant to how we worked as a team. I think culture influenced our individual styles - which I felt were markedly different” (Australian team member). “I could really see cultural attitudes (maybe stereotypes?) in each person’s style” (Spanish team leader)

(c) Culture and personality combined: “I am inclined to say that workplace employee traits are more closely aligned to personality than cultural background. Namely, how one behaves (what they say, how they act) at work is more linked to their level of introversion vs. extroversion and how they handle conflict. That’s not to say someone’s level of introversion/extroversion and overall personality isn’t influenced by their cultural background. So everything really plays a role” (American team member).“I don’t think that one can distinguish between just those two dimensions…. (we were) selected into the organisation based on certain personality traits such as an “openness to new experiences, drive for achievement, conscientiousness and a keenness to develop and grow. Cultural background however, helps (us) shape (our) work and tell a certain story” (German team member).

These views question the direct relevance of cultural diversity on team performance.

2. Cultural diversity can positively contribute to people’s professional and personal enjoyment of the project, as well as a project’s outcome

The cultural diversity of the team provided an unexpected point of enjoyment in their working relationships, with members connecting with each other over the sharing of new cultural information. During the interviews, team members referred to their professional enjoyment of the project, observing that "the diversity of the group definitely enhanced the experience (for me)", “’I think the mix of people and the professional friendships we formed were a product of people being culturally-curious and wanting to get to know their colleagues” and that "I was constantly challenged to think outside of my normal mode of analysis". Speaking of their personal enjoyment of working in a diverse team, one respondent commented that "finding out about the cultural backgrounds of team members was an important part of building relationships with them", while another spoke of valuable self-development: "I truly feel as though I've grown as an individual through this project".

3. Cultural diversity can indirectly encourage project members to rethink their usual working habits and expectations, behave with fewer assumptions about the “right” way to address an issue and promote linguistic clarity

It appears that the presence of cultural diversity, and perhaps the expectation of culturally determined differences, caused team members to become more conscious of their own work habits and to consider options for different approaches or solutions.  For example, one team member observed two different people-management styles in co-workers (one style being a single-minded focus on getting required information from the business, the other style being a focus on building social relationships/friendships to socially co-opt the business into volunteering the required information) and concluded that both styles were more effective than their own 'softly-softly' approach to cajoling the required information from the business.

Another unexpected and positive benefit related to linguistic diversity with team members speaking Japanese, Spanish, English and German as their first languages (with all speaking English well). It might be assumed that in a time pressured environment, the need for speed of communication will be enhanced by commonality of a first language. The Case Study revealed that the quality of communication can in fact be enhanced by linguistic diversity. In particular, whilst accents and turns-of-phrase sometimes caused short-term barriers to communication, the language differences provided a strong catalyst for clearer communication for all team members. Team members observed that "taking more time to make sure that things were explained clearly" was a valuable lesson to deploy in any work context. One respondent, self-admittedly inclined to be more assertive in meetings, remarked that they had "learned to listen to my colleagues and to appreciate their contributions". Finally, the client observed sagely that some local personnel express frustration with having to repeat information to people who are non-English speaking nationals; however, that may be an issue of false attribution. She noted that when she is unclear about something "I just ask for more information. And that is what I would say to people who I work with every day, i.e. native-born English speakers".  

Finally, the linguistic diversity provided an unexpected point of connection between team members, as explained by one team member “although there were times when language or pronunciation differences presented themselves, the team ended up laughing over the subtle misunderstandings, and bonding even more in the long run as a result of them”.

4. The dominance of cultural diversity amongst team members can reduce the bias to interact with people who have common characteristics and create a unique bond

One recurring theme in the responses was the sense that "being from diverse backgrounds and countries of origin (meant that) we felt that being 'different' made us the same in many ways" and that "as everyone in the team was from a different country there was not an accepted cultural norm within the group". The 'levelling-effect' of this diversity seemed to harness the team together around a genuine belief that their sum could be better than their individual parts, with one team member commenting that the diversity "made me feel more confident about our likelihood of success, and that any challenge which might arise would be overcome". The diversity of the team also seemed to have a galvanising effect on the team, resulting in one person describing how "the fact that we all came from different countries…made us connect in a very special way. It felt like we became like a little 'family' and provided additional support to one another…..personally, I felt very close to my fellow team members and have established some great relationships".

Implications

As organisations embrace greater cultural diversity in the workplace and employees are increasingly required to work in teams, the impact of diversity on team effectiveness has clear implications for business. Understanding the drivers of multicultural team effectiveness, especially the indirect drivers, may encourage organisations to embrace this opportunity. Deloitte Australia’s experience in this Case Study was that cultural diversity had a positive impact on team performance, both in terms of output and team interactions. In the words of the client “‘the team has been more productive and less stressed - when I compare them to employees in other places. I think they have worked longer hours because they are valued and appreciated. They have given 150% and have stretched themselves. Plus they have been upfront about issues - so open channels of communication.”

Whilst it is unclear if cultural diversity was the direct driver of these outcomes (indeed team members themselves were divided about whether the differences between individuals related to their country of origin, personality, or both) all agreed that cultural diversity acted in indirect ways to enhance interactions ,“ I am very proud of how this team combined to do the job (and even look after each other), and I think this assignment showed me just how well a culturally-diverse team can unite in the right circumstances” (Spanish team leader). Firstly, there appeared to be an expectation that culture might be relevant, and this caused team members to become more conscious of their own behaviours and in particular to become adaptive and flexible, for example by taking the time to ensure clarity of communication. Secondly, a sense of curiosity and respect created a level of interest in other team members’ life experiences, which provided a point of enjoyment and growth. Finally, the multicultural nature of the team provided a unique opportunity for bonding and sense of identity.

For more information about this case study please email Marta Isarria or Juliet Bourke.

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