Culture Shock

articles Business

Ilya Adler

In previous columns, I have argued that cultural diversity in organizations should be welcomed, rather than viewed as a problem to be avoided. Multinational companies in Mexico often have teams made up of Mexicans and Americans and /or Canadians who must work in close contact with one another.

Many of my clients, in all honesty, often find the cultural issue an additional burden to the already difficult task of making a team function effectively. They point out, for example, that when cultural standards differ, regardless of the rules the team decides to use, some people will feel frustrated. In some cases, teams spend more time working out these cultural issues than doing actual work. So the question is, do culturally diverse teams perform better or worse than culturally homogenous teams?

According to research by Dr. Carol Kovach, from the Graduate School of Management at the University of California at Los Angeles, cross-cultural teams are either highly effective or highly ineffective, whereas most single-culture teams fall somewhere in the middle. How well or poorly a cross-cultural team performs depends on the nature of the task and the conditions that prevail.

Dr. Nancy Adler (no relation to me), a consultant and McGill University professor of international organizational behavior, states that when teams are given tasks that require innovation, cross-cultural teams perform better, since diverse points of views tend to be more creative than single-culture teams.

However, Dr. Adler also points out that the way in which diverse teams are managed largely determines their success or failure. Of the various aspects discussed in her work, she mentions two that I consider to be of special importance: the recognition of differences and avoidance of cultural dominance.

I am often hired by companies to provide cross-cultural training, meaning that the company has already recognized that cultural differences exist and need to be dealt with. I am always surprised by how often I meet managers who stubbornly and repeatedly resist the training. This is truer of Americans and Canadians, who tend to view the world in terms of individuals (as opposed to groups), and thus reduce cultural differences to personal attributes or personal decisions. They will often argue that patterns described in cultural training do not fit everyone, thus, everything is a matter of personality.

By doing so, they have rejected that a group (or a culture) as a whole can find something better, more acceptable or logical. Cross-cultural training is not about applying a pattern to every individual, but is a way to grasp how a social group, as a collective, behaves and interprets behavior.

When cultural differences are ignored, cultural dominance is the result. Unfortunately, cultural dominance exists in most companies and teams. It may come from sheer numbers, such as having a vast majority of team members from one culture who impose their own style over the rest of the team. It also comes in the form of a hierarchy, as is the case when teams have some members from headquarters and other members representing subsidiaries. In this case, even if its team representatives are the minority, the headquarters’ standards and style tend to get imposed on the others. This is one reason why teams made of Mexicans and Americans, or Mexicans and Canadians, often consist of Mexican members learning about the style and standards of the others. Very rarely do those teams equally represent the different cultures.

So is the effort to have successful cross-cultural teams worth it? I believe so, because in the end, the excellence and innovations currently sought by most companies are best found in culturally diverse teams.

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2001 by Ilya Adler © 2008
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