Cultural islands: managing multicultural groups

In the previous chapter, I outlined what a learning culture and learning leadership must be. It is easy to specify these requirements; it is very hard to fulfill them. In particular, it is not at all clear how cultural insight and mutual understanding can be achieved in multicultural settings, groups, and organizations when several national and occupational macrocultures are involved. Multicultural task forces and projects will not only be more common but they have even acquired a new name—“collaborations.” Such groupings are described in an article within the Handbook of Cultural Intelligence (Ang and Van Dyne, 2008):

Participants in a collaboration may come together on a one-time basis, with­out anticipating continued interaction. A core set of members may remain involved for an extended period of time, but other participants may float on and off the effort, working only on an “as needed” sporadic basis. Further, collaborations may have periods of intensely interdependent interaction, but may otherwise consist of quite independent actors. Many are not embedded in a single organizational context, but represent either cross-organizational cooperation or participants may not have any organizational affiliation at all. Participants may feel as though they share a common purpose for the duration of a given project, yet may not view themselves as a “team.” Collaborators may never meet face-to-face, may be geographically dispersed, and may be primar­ily connected by communication technology. Thus collaborations are more loosely structured, more temporary, more fluid, and often more electronically enabled than traditional teams. (Gibson and Dibble, 2008, pp. 222-223)

The two prototype situations to consider are (1) a task force in which every member comes from a different nationality, and (2) a team such as a

surgical team in which every member comes from a different occupational culture with hierarchical differences within the team. The unique factor in these kinds of groups is that we are dealing both with national and status differences. From a culture management and learning leadership perspec­tive, how are such groups to be created and made effective?

In each of these cases, the group must undergo some experiences that enable the members to discover essential cultural characteristics of the other members, to overcome the rituals of deference and demeanor that curtail open communication across status levels, to develop some amount of understanding and empathy, and to find some common ground. In par­ticular, they must discover the norms and underlying assumptions that deal with authority and intimacy because common ground in those areas is essen­tial to developing feasible working relationships. This task is made espe­cially difficult because each culture ’s social order has norms about “face” that make it difficult and dangerous to talk about these areas openly. Rules of politeness and fear of offending make it very likely that members will not easily reveal their deeper feelings about authority and intimacy.

We are not talking about how to manage a merger or joint venture when only two cultures are involved and where some formal mutual edu­cation might work. Instead we are now talking about how an Arab, an Israeli, a Japanese, a Nigerian, and an American, for example, can be shaped into a functioning work group even if they share some knowledge of English. Briefing the group on where each country stands on the Hofstede dimensions would do little to foster understanding or empathy. Or con­sider how a surgeon, an anesthesiologist, several nurses, and technicians who have to implement a new surgical technique can become a successful team (Edmondson, Bohmer, and Pisano, 2001). Add the possibility that in this medical team, three of the members are from different countries and received their training in those countries; how would they find common ground? Lecturing to such a group about the culture of doctors and the different culture of nurses would only scratch the surface if the members need to collaborate constructively. What kind of education or experience would enable such groups to develop working relationships, trust, and task­relevant open communications? That is the puzzle to be solved.

It is necessary to remember that the social order and its norms of polite­ness, tact, and face saving is an essential component of culture, designed to make society possible. Every macroculture develops a social order, but the actual norms differ from culture to culture. For example, in the United States, face-to-face criticism is acceptable; in Japan it is not. In some cul­tures, hiring relatives is the only way to get trusted employees; in other cultures, it is called nepotism and is forbidden. In some cultures, trust is established with a handshake; in others, it can only be established with pay­offs and bribes (and even the word “bribe” is culturally loaded). Differences across occupational boundaries might not be as extreme, but they are just as important if teams that cut across hierarchical boundaries and occupa­tions have to function together.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition

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