More Spice In Group Life: Multicultural working groups

I have said it before and I will repeat it as often as my chosen topic calls for it:  Cross-cultural issues, or diversity issues, are very personal, and therefore potentially emotional.  The illustrations in last week’s entry (A Brit Insulted An Asian Woman In Germany) were “minor,” superficially, but the impact was long lasting.  As US working environment grows more multicultural and the world more interconnected, it is fairly common these days to have colleagues from different cultures, be them foreign nationals or of different ethnic origins within the same country.

Working with any group is difficult enough; throw in some cultural spices, and the challenge balloons.  Typically, when trying to grasp group dynamics, to establish some cohesion, or to devise task procedures and assume certain roles in a traditional single cultural group, the initial operating assumption is: “let’s find some common ground.”  Similarities provide a common-sense foundation.  However, in a multicultural working group, we may want to think counter-intuitively:  let the differences serve as the group’s strength.  This according to Kenwyn Smith and David Berg, in their “Cross-Cultural Groups at Work,” 1997, European Management Journal.

It's part of a gnarly tree trunk.

It’s part of a gnarly tree trunk.

Sidebar:  Kenwyn is a friend, and was my professor at Wharton and a member of my dissertation committee.  His research and philosophy have greatly influenced my own research, work, and life.

Think about some typical issues most groups regularly have to face:  authority, decision-making processes, emotional expressions, the inevitable conflicts.  In a single cultural group, members by and large share similar values with which to approach their collaboration.  However, one Asian alone could upset the dynamic, for instance, with her desire to circumvent conflicts.  Adding an eastern European who might insist on his “expert” opinion, and the group life gets more sticky.  Even though Indians, Japanese, and Koreans all are from Asia, their values can be quite different.  In some cultures, one doesn’t ever question a manager’s directive.  In other cultures, people like vivid expressions especially regarding managers’ directives.  Conflicts by themselves are already thorny; different attitudes about facing and handling conflicts add that much more complexity.  Attempt to avoid these cross-cultural differences, and awkwardness and anxiety rise quickly in the group.  Such a multicultural group might be able to function okay, albeit with struggle; it stands a much higher probability of sputtering (and maybe regressing) during crisis.  And crisis appears to be a constant in organization/group life nowadays.

Smith and Berg offer three steps to help multicultural groups starting from the formative stage of group life:  1.  Learning how to learn together, 2.  Discovering members’ unique cultural contributions, and 3.  Exploring group polarities.  And ultimately, the group should learn to embrace paradoxes to release some of the inevitable tension.  The first two steps are fairly straightforward.  But “from polarity to paradox” is, like staring at a Möbius strip, fascinating yet difficult to comprehend.  I’ll save that puzzle for a future entry.

Do we always know immediately how we learn? And how we are prevented from learning?  It’s time to pause and reflect:  think of those times when you learned something important, and how it came about.  And think of the times when you wanted to learn something of value but were prevented, and how that came about.  Here are the lists of conditions for the “learning” and “not-learning” compiled from Smith and Berg’s research:

Conditions for Learning:

  • “Both positive and negative feedback.
  • A context that values openness.
  • No lying.
  • A willingness to be vulnerable.
  • An acceptance that mistakes occur.
  • Open acknowledgement of ‘when I make a mistake.’
  • Active listening to bad news.
  • Time allocated to examine what happened.
  • Open sharing of knowledge, and
  • An atmosphere that encourages and rewards learning.”

Conditions when Thwarted Learning

  • “A climate of blame.
  • No time for reflection with others.
  • Fear.
  • A lack of information
  • An authoritarian management structure.
  • A belief ‘we can outrun this problem.’
  • A focus on individuals rather than their actions.
  • Constant attention to outside knowledge while ignoring local insights.
  • Pandering to inflated egos, and
  • Poor teaching or mentorship.”
Bark of a skinny tree.

Bark of a skinny tree.

This kind of meta-learning, learning about learning, provides room for both individual experiences/stories and opportunities to discover some common learning aspects.

The second step, “discovering members’ unique cultural contributions,” takes people through a slightly different route, big collective events/trends, to find more commonalities.  Group members were asked to identify cultural events in their particular region, during the decades of ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s.  For business managers and executives, Smith and Berg had them focus on business and social trends.  Then, the respondents were asked to speculate what the events for future decades might be.

More interestingly, Smith and Berg asked the respondents to face their own ignorance of those decades and struggles in articulating certain events.

When subgroups (based on geographical regions) posted their findings of themes, the whole groups reviewed each other’s lists.  In a sense, this second exercise captured what the first step offered.  The outcomes from the second exercise were:

  • Awareness that what happened in one region often happened in another part of the world a decade later.
  • People were more cognizant that they do not know about other cultures as much as they thought; therefore,
  • People had opportunities to educate each other about their cultural background.
  • This exercise allowed people to learn about differences together.
  • They confirmed the “cliché,” through personal experience, how interdependent the world has become.
  • Cross-cultural differences might be the foundation to build connections.
  • This exercise was but the beginning of something much deeper and more complex.

These points may appear common sense, but living and experiencing these differences do not always jibe with our intellectual theorizing.

Looks like aspen tree trunks...just streaks on a concrete slab.

Looks like aspen tree trunks…but just streaks on a concrete slab.

Next week, I will explore “group polarity and paradox.”

In memory of the wise, generous, and courageous Nelson Mandela, would you please use this week to experience and explore some differences with your colleagues? Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

Direct Contact:  taso100@gmail.com

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