Managing multicultural teams

There are four barriers to good communications between multicultural teams. There can be problems when one side communicates in a very direct way and the other side uses a more indirect approach.

by Harvard Business Review
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Typically, Westerners say exactly what they mean, whereas in other cultures the meaning is inferred from the way a message is delivered.

A US manager could not understand why her Japanese counterparts seemed to say "Yes" when they really meant, "I'm listening". Problems with accents and fluency in business English also cause difficulties. Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority are a third obstacle. Finally, there is a very different approach to decision-making.

US managers like to make decisions quickly and don't want to go back over issues again once they have been agreed. Some managers learn to adapt. In one case, a US manager finally realised that the Israelis he worked with were not being deliberately rude. Rather, their cultural style was very 'in your face' and by accepting this, he could work better with them.

Making structural changes can sometimes help. For instance, one team manager broke a team up into smaller units when she realised that the Japanese female consultants did not work well within big groups. And teams can use a manager sometimes to intervene to cut through cultural barriers to solve a problem.

Managing multicultural teams,
Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar and Mary C. Kern,
Harvard Business Review, November 2006

Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Why collaborations fail

Collaboration needn’t be a dirty word.

How redundancies affect culture

There are ways of preventing 'survivor syndrome' derailing your recovery.

What they don't tell you about inclusive leadership

Briefing: Frances Frei was hired to fix Uber’s ‘bro culture’. Here’s her lesson for where...

Should you downsize the office?

Many businesses are preparing for a 'hybrid' workplace.

How to make your team more accountable

‘Do as I do’ works a lot better than ‘do as I say’.

Black talent isn’t hard to find: It’s just you

If you want to attract the widest range of applicants, you need to think about...