Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Managing multicultural teams: What you should know

Fostering collective global leadership — and having a team learning orientation is a way to get there

IESE Business School
Published: Feb 8, 2017 06:27:12 AM IST
Updated: Apr 20, 2017 05:18:45 PM IST

Managing multicultural teams: What you should know Image: Shutterstock

The effects of a globalized world are nothing new. More and more often, we find ourselves working side by side colleagues from different cultures and countries or regularly Skyping with company-counterparts abroad. However, just because it is becoming common doesn´t mean it is easy.  International collaboration can be difficult. Oftentimes, colleagues must cross time zones, as well as language barriers and cultural divides. Just ask those who were betting on the DaimlerChrysler megamerger. The union ultimately failed, with many blaming the two companies' cultural discord.

So what is to be done? In order to try to shed some light on the issue, IESE professor Yih-Teen Lee and Minna Paunova of Copenhagen Business School looked at self-managed multicultural teams (working units made up of people from different cultures who are all responsible for executing a team task) in a nine month study. They found that especially when engaging with knowledge work, the fact these teams have a wide set of skills and viewpoints can help foster creativity. What´s more, having a wider range of capabilities allows them to serve a variety of client needs across different cultures..

But do they work? And how do they work best? The study highlights some practical tips which can help multicultural working groups can thrive. However, the short answer is: training makes a difference. The long answer is you don't need to have a Brazilian mom and an Indian dad with a Swiss education to contribute positively to multicultural teams' success. In their study of 36 multinational teams (made up of over 250 MBA students from over 40 countries), they found that what's really critical is fostering collective global leadership -- and having a team-learning orientation is a way to get there.

Getting to know yourself better
In their study, the authors predicted that multicultural teams would be positively influenced by a "learning orientation." Learning-oriented individuals aren't afraid of failure and are eager to try new things. (In contrast, those who have a "performance orientation" are more eager to demonstrate their competence in current tasks.)

Anyone who has lived abroad can tell you that adapting to a different culture is a social learning process. The same is true in multicultural work environments. On a team level, the study confirmed that learning orientation can drive higher performance, efficacy, and commitment, as well as improved team dynamics. (At the same time, Lee and Paunova found that when team members are already willing to put group goals above their own individual glory, learning to be open is less important.)

Leading without one leader
For success, recent scholarship recommends that global leadership be distributed across multiple team members. This implies that team members are open to both offering and receiving guidance from all other team members, regardless of their culture or nationality.

When it works well, collective global leadership can boost team performance by driving greater effort and efficiency, as the Lee and Paunova´s study confirmed for its MBA teams. Furthermore, shared responsibility improves the intra-team environment, allowing happier and more comfortable members to deliver improved results.

Three Tips to Boost Team Performance
So, is "learning orientation" a fixed trait, or can it be developed? The latter, say the authors, who offer three concrete tips to boost learning orientation, and thus collective leadership and performance, in multicultural teams:

       1. Hire learning-oriented team members. Learning orientation not only makes individual team  members more leader-like, but also contributes to their effective participation in the global leadership process.
       2. Develop existing employees' learning orientation. Implementing seminars and training tools designed to show that skills can be learned and that mistakes are a natural step in the learning process is key.
       3. Coach employees to adapt to multicultural teams. Organizational programs can teach people to feel safer, identify with their multicultural team, and to be more trusting of team members from other cultures.

In short, multicultural teams perform best when they have collective global leadership, supported by a positive team environment. To get there, having a learning orientation is crucial. Luckily “learning orientation” is not something you have to be born with – it is a trait that can be acquired and developed.

[This article has been reproduced with permission from IESE Business School. Views expressed are personal.]