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Global Network Week: A model for multicultural teams

If you want ROI on multicultural teams, go organize a cultural immersion week to bring the team members together

Published: Jul 12, 2017

mg_96685_multicultural_teams_280x210.jpg Image: Shutterstock

“Team in Bangalore (80), team in China (5-8), team in Mexico (12-15) working on ….The hub Global Delivery Center (GDC) is in Bangalore, the satellite centers are in China and Mexico. Satellite Centers are not feeling ‘included’ with the hub GDC. They are operating as isolated entities. How can we improve upon ‘inclusion’? How can we improve upon motivation as this is resulting in low morale and motivation amongst satellite GDCs? Due to cost cutting, travel opportunities are nil…in such a scenario how can we improve upon our virtual team building?”

—A Project Manager in the High-Tech Industry.

Hire me as a consultant! Well, I save that advice for another day. The cultural psychologist gets the better of me. Takes note of the emotion-laden words: Included (emphasis in original). Low morale. Motivation. I give the earnest (and free!) advice to the Manager: If you want ROI on multicultural teams, go organize a cultural immersion week to bring the team members together. Cost cutting doesn’t mean cost saving. Leave it to the Finance people to figure out what that last line means. ‘ROI’ already hit the note.

Managers dealing with multicultural teams—in the virtual or real world— face the double-edged sword. On the one hand, they are supposed to benefit from the costs, talent, and time advantage of globally distributed teams, and on the other, they spend so much time either firefighting or being a helpless spectator to interpersonal frictions and misunderstandings, that they often wonder is it worth it? Dear Manager, shouldn’t the whole be greater than the sum of its parts when members from across the world are working together towards common tasks and purposes? It’s a team after all.

Social Integration is Critical: But how can it be achieved?

In one of the influential review papers on multicultural teams, published in 2009, Dr.Günter Stahl and colleagues analysed 108 empirical studies of 10,632 teams for their performances and processes. Results suggested that one of the key variables that led to process loss in multicultural teams was decreased social integration, that is, lower trust, cohesion, motivation, trust, and morale among team members. Exactly what the manager in the opening scenario is experiencing! So, what’s the solution?

One of the most effective ways, to my mind, is to have a week-long cultural excursion and immersion in the individual team members’ home countries, such as the Global Network Week I describe below. And make no mistake, this is not an academic ivory tower theorizing or a conventional study abroad tour. I have anecdotal evidence on my side. Angel A. Facio Mandujano from Mexico, Senior Vice President of KIRIU, said after the programme: “I have been working more than 30 years mainly with Japanese nationals and I could never get the level of trust, engagement and appreciation with each other that I got in my cultural immersion in India. Definitely, the open and transparent communication achieved is the kind of magic I have never experienced in my formal organization as a leader of multicultural team. I would like to implement similar activity to set this kind of relationship among KIRIU’s worldwide members.” Here’s what Marion, a Canadian national, studying in China, said, “I have a better understanding of the why sometimes people behave in a certain way (even though if for me it was obviously wrong), so when I face these situations it is easier to keep my calm and find effective solutions.”

So, what did we do?

From Being Strangers to ‘Friends Forever’

Thanks to the initiative of Dean Edward A. Snyder of the Yale School of Management, member schools of the Global Network for Advanced Management (GNAM) provide opportunities to their students to participate in weeklong courses in host schools. My course in the GNAM Week@ IIMB focused on Cultural Competence among Global Business Managers. Twenty-six students from eight different nationalities participated in the program. Other than the ten host nationals, the participants had never before interacted with each other, so were strangers to each other. What made them change the Whatsapp group name to Friends Forever in a week’s time? What are the lessons for global business managers in this program? Three that stand out are:
1. Experience the authentic cultural sights, sounds and smells: Cultural immersion is diving into the unknown in a safe and somewhat protected environment. It is not a ‘Survivor’ stint, but it is no 5-star experience, either! The foreign team members as authentically experience the cultural sights, sounds, and smells as do the locals in their everyday routines. Debriefing and decoding these experiences in the local context helps build empathy and enhanced understanding of the local team member(s)’ realities.
2. Scientific discourse on cultural differences: The scientific empirical scholarship in the field of Cultural Psychology and Cross-cultural Management provides great resources to discuss cultural differences in a sound open manner. This discourse helps make the shift from stereotyping to healthy discussion on cultural differences. This entails an active acceptance and appreciation of cultural uniqueness.
3. Local Hosts: The welcoming attitude of the hosts in this week goes a long way in building lasting relationships with the foreign team members. Home visits, meeting the family members, celebration—all this provides a perspective to seeing the virtual team member in a holistic manner.

Finally, in an academic setting, nothing gets over without an exam. So, in our case a time-constrained group project tested the participant’s ability to work with each other. Voila! All teams got an A+! And none of them complained about not being able to get along with each other. But, if your team members are, I am available for consultation!

Prof. Ritu Tripathi is a faculty in the Organization Behaviour and Human Resource Mamnagement area at IIM Bangalore.

[This article has been published with permission from IIM Bangalore. www.iimb.ac.in Views expressed are personal.]

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