November 02, 2017

Multicultural teams: the unlikely obvious solution

Intercultural Management

Jean Pautrot, who was EDF's Mobility Director for a long time, gives us the keys to the success of a multicultural team.

Multicultural teams: the unlikely obvious solution

The challenges of multicultural teams

The evolution of the organization of international groups is generating more and more multicultural, partially virtual teams. The differences in behavior and problem-solving methods between cultures are such that it seems impossible for a multicultural team to produce a result.

The reality is often different: this diversity requires more listening, explanations, exchanges, mutual respect and objectivity, so that threats can quickly transform into opportunities.

However, working in a multicultural team requires real know-how. The question is: how to acquire a sufficient understanding of other cultures, of the particularities of each, in order to best manage divergences or conflicts? It seems that training and experience are two components of one and the same answer.

How to define a multicultural team?

1. Bicultural teams

By internationalizing, groups acquire subsidiaries and create joint ventures. Bicultural teams are thus formed, generally made up of expatriates from the parent company and local executives. These teams are effective, but they carry latent conflicts: one of the parties ends up imposing its language, its working methods, and its ideas.

2. Multicultural teams

The second level of internationalization is characterized by the arrival of expatriates from foreign subsidiaries to the headquarters to train and integrate the group's strategy. The financial management of a French group can accommodate a German, an Englishman, a Chinese and a Canadian. This creates a multicultural team, that is to say a group of individuals from more than two cultures.

3. Cross-functional multicultural teams

The third level of internationalization sees the emergence of cross-functional multicultural teams, either project teams made up of the group's best expertise in the field, or management teams of a business where the group's different locations around the world are represented.

These cross-functional teams (projects or management committees) are increasingly common in the research, production and marketing sectors. They are at least partly virtual, their working language is English, they mainly rely on short-term mobility for physical meetings and work via the Internet and conference calls. This orientation is accompanied by a stagnation in the number of long-term expatriates and a significant increase in short-term missions.

What is the role of the expatriate?

A foreign subsidiary primarily uses employees from the country where it is established. It is therefore, by nature, mono-cultural. International groups have, on average, an expatriate workforce of less than 1% of their total workforce. They expatriate for:

  • respond to a call for tenders or acquire a subsidiary;
  • be present in the governance of their subsidiaries (management, finances);
  • provide missing technical expertise locally;
  • provide an opportunity for international experience to future leaders;
  • develop a common culture.

The expatriate is a stakeholder in the subsidiary; it is not his status as an expatriate that gives him a particular ability to manage conflicts, it is his hierarchical positioning and his multicultural sensitivity. On the other hand, he is a good intermediary between the subsidiary and head office: he knows the issues of both worlds and can interpret them to both parties.

The multicultural team: opportunity or source of difficulties?

Multicultural teams are an opportunity for an international group:

  • They make it possible to bring together the best expertise on a question;
  • They are a place for disseminating the group's strategy, particularly in business management committees;
  • They are a crucible for the development and dissemination of the group's identity and culture;
  • They are a catalyst for innovation by confronting differences.

Multicultural teams are less difficult to manage than bicultural teams, and competition phenomena are less significant.

However, it is necessary to bring together actors who have very different mother tongues, analytical processes and modes of action. This heterogeneity of modes of thinking and action is a source of difficulty for the management of such teams, each person having to take the time to listen to the other and take their differences into account. The diversity of native languages ​​is a source of misunderstandings due to imperfect command of English or approximate translations of technical vocabulary, when not all members speak English. Hence the importance of cultural and linguistic support.

The multicultural team manager

Due to the difficulties listed above, the working process of a multicultural team is slower and more difficult than that of a monocultural team. Paradoxically, it is of better quality, because the unsaid and the acting take up much less space. By necessity, the problems and objectives are better explained, the scheduling of the work is more precise. For example, the debates of a European Works Council are generally of a higher quality than those of the Works Councils of the different countries in the group.

Success lies in appropriate management. In addition to the usual qualities, the manager must be a moderator and a mediator; it is about making everyone understand the particularities of each person and the originality of each contribution, to respond positively to the unexpected. It's a bit like squaring the circle. The phrase: “ what brings us together is moreimportant than what divides us” is the guiding principle of all multicultural work.

How to successfully recruit abroad?

For recruitment abroad, priority should be given to the local job market and the use of local recruitment firms. The employee integrates more easily into the subsidiary. Multicultural experience becomes important in recruitment. Fortunately, many young graduates around the world have studied abroad for at least 6 months. The campuses of universities or Grandes Écoles and lecture halls are today places for learning about multiculturality.

The keys to success of a multicultural team

In the answers to the previous questions, we have listed a number of key success factors for the functioning of a multicultural team:

  • listen,
  • taking into account the other,
  • precise organization of work,
  • English proficiency,
  • very explicit communication,
  • absence of value judgment and arrogance.

From questionnaires used on a large scale at IBM, Geert Hofstede distinguishes 5 factors of cultural differentiation: hierarchical distance, attitude towards uncertainty, positioning of the individual in relation to the group, the masculine or feminine dimension values, short or long term orientation. Each culture has characteristic scores on these 5 dimensions; it’s a kind of cultural identity card. Although it is debated today, this approach is very educational and useful for identifying the sources of misunderstandings in a multicultural team and providing solutions.

On his site, Geert Hofstede has a rather pessimistic vision of multiculturality: “ Culture is more often a source of conflict than of synergy.Cultural differences are a nuisance at best and often a disaster.” This type of sentence should be examined with a multicultural prism: it is about these introductory jokes dear to Anglo-Saxon culture, which underline the value of the subsequent presentation.

With a French cultural prism, I would say that the member of a multicultural team must be an honest man in the classic sense, that is to say a cultured man. Knowledge of history and especially religions provides reliable information on cultural behavior. Books like Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism(1904-1905) build bridges between a religion and the culture in which it is dominant. A second source of knowledge of cultures is the study of national educational models, closely linked to the local culture of which they are, moreover, also the matrix.

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