Getting Teams with Different Subcultures to Collaborate

  • Category Teams

The term “organizational culture” can obscure an important truth: An organization often contains many cultures. This is true even if your organization is located entirely in one country, or even at one site.

Because each business unit or team may have their own subculture, working effectively across the organization requires skill in working across cultures.

Doing this requires three steps: understanding what culture is and how it works, identifying the cultures of your team and the teams you work with, and designing how you and the other teams will work together.

Understand what team culture is and how it works. A team’s culture is its shared values and assumptions, and it results from a mix of elements: the organization, industry, geographic region and nation, and profession or function the team represents. Values are things we consider worth striving for, such as honesty, accountability, and compassion. Assumptions are beliefs we hold about how the world works or how things are related. For example, you may assume that people generally want to do a good job, or that people are more committed to a decision when they are involved in making it. A team manifests its culture in many artifacts, including norms that lead members to act in certain ways and to create structures, processes, and policies. It’s important to distinguish between a team’s espoused culture and the one it operates from. The values that team members say they operate from are the espoused culture — which may or may not be what they actually operate from.

Identify your team’s and other teams’ cultures. To determine how cultures differ, you need to identify the values and assumptions that constitute them. And to do that you need to operate from the assumption that differences are opportunities for learning; if that thinking isn’t already part of your culture, your joint exploration may quickly devolve into conflict as each team describes how the other’s culture is a problem. To avoid this, consider finding a facilitator or consultant to help you.

Start by identifying artifacts that strike each team as notably different from its own. This includes norms, behaviors, structures, and processes. For example, you may notice that the team you’re working with spends significant time trying to agree on what important words mean, while your team considers these detailed conversations to be a poor use of time. Or the other team may point out that your team deals with inter-team conflicts by raising the issue in the full inter-team meeting, while their team discusses conflicts in private.

Next, identify the assumptions and values that generate these artifacts. In the example above, your team raising conflicts in the full group may reflect your belief that conflict can best be resolved in the setting where all the information exists. The other team may assume that conflicts are best resolved in private where people are less likely to become embarrassed or defensive. I have found that organizational function is a significant part of team norms. Professions such as engineering and medicine, which are rooted in the scientific method, may value precision and logical reasoning more than other functions, for instance. To perform this step well, it’s critical that you get curious about the other team’s values and assumptions, instead of assuming you know the values or assumptions that explain the artifact. You can infer a team’s culture from its artifacts, but you can’t figure out whether your inference is correct without asking the team’s members.

Finally, determine whether each artifact is shared, different but congruent, or conflicting. Conflicting artifacts are the most important to address because they present the greatest challenge to working together effectively.

Jointly design a solution for the different and conflicting values and assumptions. Focusing on the values and assumptions rather than on the artifacts is important both because it helps everyone understand the reasons behind each team’s artifacts and because it helps you design solutions for norms, structures, and processes that are based on the same values and assumptions.

There are several options for designing a solution. If one team is particularly bound to its values and assumptions in a certain situation, the other team may decide simply to adopt that team’s approach. For example, the team that discusses conflict privately may begin doing it in meetings if the other team makes a compelling case for it. Or the teams can develop a solution that integrates their cultures when the two are not necessarily incompatible. For example, the teams could agree to initially raise a conflict in private with the person who is most involved in solving it, and then jointly raise the issue with the larger team. Lastly, the teams can compromise when other options don’t work. This may be the best solution you can develop, but because compromises don’t resolve conflicting values and assumptions, they tend to leave everyone somewhat dissatisfied, so they may not create sustainable solutions. For example, the teams might agree to let each member decide on whether to raise a conflict privately or in the team.

Just as an effective team invests time and effort agreeing on how members will work together, so do teams that work effectively with each other.

Roger Schwarz is an organizational psychologist, speaker, leadership team consultant, and president and CEO of Roger Schwarz & Associates. He is the author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results. For more, visit or find him on Twitter @LeadSmarter.




Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable — and That’s Why They Perform Better

  • Category Teams

In numerous studies, diversity — both inherent (e.g., race, gender) and acquired (experience, cultural background) — is associated with business success. For example, a 2009 analysis of 506 companies found that firms with more racial or gender diversity had more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits. A 2016 analysis of more than 20,000 firms in 91 countries found that companies with more female executives were more profitable. In a 2011 study management teams exhibiting a wider range of educational and work backgrounds produced more-innovative products. These are mere correlations, but laboratory experiments have also shown the direct effect of diversity on team performance. In a 2006 study of mock juries, for example, when black people were added to the jury, white jurors processed the case facts more carefully and deliberated more effectively.

Under increasing scrutiny, and mindful of the benefits of diversity on the bottom line, many companies are trying to recruit and retain a more diverse workforce. Success has so far been marginal. With so much at stake, why aren’t these companies making more headway? One reason could be that, despite the evidence about their results, homogenous teams just feel more effective. In addition, people believe that diverse teams breed greater conflict than they actually do. Bringing these biases to light may enable ways to combat them.

Homogenous Teams Feel Easier — but Easy Is Bad for Performance

A revealing 2009 study of fraternity and sorority members published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin offers a remarkable window into the workings of diverse and homogenous teams. Fraternity and sorority membership conveys a powerful group identity, much like political or religious affiliation, and consequently can create a strong sense of similarity (or dissimilarity) with others. In the experiment, teams were asked to solve a murder mystery. First, students were individually given 20 minutes to study the clues and pinpoint the likely suspect. Next, they were placed into teams of three with fellow members from the same Greek house and given 20 minutes to discuss the case together and provide a joint answer. Five minutes into the discussion, however, they were joined by a fourth team member, someone from either their own house or another one.

After collectively naming their suspect, members individually rated aspects of the discussion. More diverse groups — those joined by someone from outside their own fraternity or sorority — judged the team interactions to be less effective than did groups joined by insiders. They were also less confident in their final decisions.

Intuitively, this makes sense: On a homogenous team, people readily understand each other and collaboration flows smoothly, giving the sensation of progress. Dealing with outsiders causes friction, which feels counterproductive.

But in this case their judgments were starkly wrong. Among groups where all three original members didn’t already know the correct answer, adding an outsider versus an insider actually doubled their chance of arriving at the correct solution, from 29% to 60%. The work felt harder, but the outcomes were better.

In fact, working on diverse teams produces better outcomes precisely because it’s harder.

This idea goes against many people’s intuitions. There’s a common bias that psychologists call the fluency heuristic: We prefer information that is processed more easily, or fluently, judging it to be truer or more beautiful. The effect partially explains that we gain greater appreciation of songs or paintings when they become familiar because they’re more easily processed. The fluency heuristic leads many people to study incorrectly; they often simply reread the material. The information becomes more familiar without much effort, and so they feel that they’re learning. But in a 2011 study students performed better on a test after studying the text once and then trying to recall as much as they could, a strenuous task, than they did by repeatedly going over the text, even though they predicted that rereading was the key to learning. Similarly, confronting opinions you disagree with might not seem like the quickest path to getting things done, but working in groups can be like studying (or exercising): no pain, no gain.

Diversity Can Increase Conflict, but Not as Much as You Think

There’s another bias at play here, too: A 2015 paper in Organization Science, summarized in this HBR article, suggests that people overestimate the amount of conflict that actually exists on diverse teams. In one study MBA students were asked to imagine that they were comanaging several four-person teams of interns, and that one team had asked for additional resources. They saw photos of the members, depicting four white men, four black men, or two of each. They then read a transcript of a discussion among the group and rated the team on various factors. Teams of four white men and four black men were seen as having equal levels of relationship conflict, but the diverse teams were seen as having more relationship conflict than the homogeneous teams, even though everyone had read the same transcript. Further, this perception of greater conflict made the participants less likely to provide the additional resources the mixed group had requested.

This type of unconscious bias can clearly have a significant impact not only on hiring but also on the ways in which leaders create teams and encourage collaboration.  Without realizing it, they may be reluctant to add diversity to a team or to assign colleagues with different backgrounds to work together, in response to an (overblown) fear of the tension and difficulty that could ensue.

Capitalizing on Diversity Means Highlighting — Not Hiding from — Differences

It’s critical to note that simply making a team more diverse is not necessarily enough to see the benefits. Diverse teams must find ways to work together productively, and often the best ways of working may seem counterintuitive.

For example, research suggests that when people with different perspectives are brought together, people may seek to gloss over those differences in the interest of group harmony — when, in fact, differences should actually be taken seriously and highlighted. In a 2012 study teams of three were tasked with generating a creative business plan for a theater. On some teams, members were assigned distinct roles (Artistic, Event, and Finance Manager), thus increasing diversity of viewpoints. These teams came up with better ideas than homogeneous teams — but only if they’d been explicitly told to try to take the perspectives of their teammates. They had to face up to their differences in order to benefit from them.

Another way to take advantage of differing viewpoints is to highlight the value of multiculturalism. One 2009 study looked at support for multiculturalism versus colorblindness in nearly 4,000 employees in 18 work units at a large U.S. health care firm. The more that workers agreed that “employees should recognize and celebrate racial and ethnic differences” and the more they disagreed that “employees should downplay their racial and ethnic differences,” the more that minorities in those units reported feeling engaged in their work. In another 2009 study, pairs of students, one white and one Aboriginal Canadian, were teamed up for a conversation. Prefacing the meeting with a message supporting multiculturalism (versus no message) made the meeting more positive, while a message endorsing colorblindness led whites to turn negative toward their minority partners.

Of course, diversity is not always a panacea, and it can at times produce corrosive conflict. When that happens, it is often because team members are bringing different values, rather than different ideas, to the table. It’s difficult to overcome differences in values, no matter how well-intentioned colleagues may be. In addition, diversity’s benefits are rarely obtained without a strong sense of team and organizational inclusion. Only when people feel welcome and respected will the team be able to benefit from their unique perspective and experience.

The research presented here suggests that diversity initiatives may not be successful until we do more to address the way diversity is perceived. When leaders see it first and foremost as a social obligation that makes things difficult and slows progress, they will likely make decisions that undermine the organization’s diversity goals. They may also, at least unconsciously, try to downplay the substance of existing diversity on their teams. If, however, leaders can recognize that the debate and unfamiliarity that come with diversity is an important catalyst for creativity and deep thinking, they will invite it and celebrate it. And very likely, the organization — and everyone in it — will reap the rewards.


David Rock is cofounder of the Neuroleadership Institute, a consultant and author of Your Brain at Work.

Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. is Senior Scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at Columbia University. She is the author of the bestselling Nine Things Successful People Do Differently. Her latest book is No One Understands You and What to Do About It, which has been featured in national and international media. She’s on Twitter @hghalvorson.

Jacqui Grey is Managing Director, Europe for the Neuroleadership Institute. She is known for her work on innovative leadership programs and board-level executive mentoring for FTSE 100 companies. She’s the author of Executive Advantage – Resilient leadership for 21st Century Organisations. Jacqui has been a guest lecturer at Cranfield, IE Business School, and LBS, among others.



How to Build Trust on Your Cross-Cultural Team

  • Category Teams

One of the most essential characteristics for a high-functioning team — perhaps the single most important characteristic — is trust. Anyone who has worked on a team knows that team members must be able to trust each other to get the job done, and be committed and dedicated to the overall welfare of the group. In any group of individuals, trust is challenging to create and sustain, but in the case of a multicultural team it can be especially difficult for a variety of different reasons.

First of all, communication styles vary across cultures; so, too, does the extent to which people socialize or get down to business at the start of a meeting. There are differences in conventions around time, giving feedback, and disagreeing publicly. Multicultural teams are prone to friction due to perceptions of ethnocentrism, with minority team members feeling ignored or not taken seriously.

How can leaders of multicultural teams leverage the upside of diversity without falling prey to its inherent challenges? In our collective experience working with hundreds of individuals on cross-cultural teams around the globe, leaders of multicultural teams can use the following five tips to build trust between team members.

Structure the team for success. The great organizational behavior scholar Richard Hackman used to argue that the best way to ensure a positive process in a team is to create initial conditions that set up the team for success. For a multicultural team, that means making sure the team has a clear and compelling direction, its members have access to the information and resources they need to successfully carry out the work, stakeholders in different geographies and functions are on board with the team’s agenda, and the team is staffed wisely — ideally with people who have the requisite technical skills as well as cultural intelligence and global dexterity. Given the built-in challenges these teams face to begin with, it’s essential to staff them with as many curious, flexible, thoughtful, and emotionally stable members as possible.

Understand the cross-cultural makeup of your team. The leader of any cross-cultural team needs to understand the different cultures, language differences, and “fault lines” within the team, as well as the potential for misconception and miscommunication. For example, if the team comprises three Germans and three Koreans, you might guess that feedback will be a cultural tripwire. Many Germans are notoriously comfortable giving direct, unmitigated feedback, whereas the reverse is typically the case in Korea unless the dialogue is between senior and junior colleagues. Making note of these tensions can help you anticipate potential challenges and resolve them swiftly and effectively.

That said, leaders also must understand individual personalities. What if the three Korean members of the team all went to school in the U.S., lived and worked in Europe, and are anything but prototypical Korean in their cultural style? That would make for a very different set of predictions about group dynamics.

Set very clear norms and stick to them. Multicultural team members are inevitably going to bring a wide variety of different work styles and personal preferences to the table. The team leader must establish team norms that everyone sticks to — no matter what their personal default might be. Rather than simply imposing your own preferred style, start by taking into account what will work best for the team as a whole, and consider incorporating practices from other cultures that could be useful. For instance, if you normally assign individual responsibilities but many team members have a preference for handling work in small project groups, you could assign complex tasks to small groups.

Make the norms clear, but be aware of who on the team might find it difficult to meet those expectations due to cultural backgrounds. You may need additional communication for those team members. For example, if you have established that team members must arrive at meetings by the designated time to ensure a prompt start (Western-style punctuality), you’ll need to reinforce that norm consistently across the group. The same goes for patterns of communication. Multicultural team members benefit from knowing what type of information they will receive when, and from having a regular rhythm for video conferences, teleconferences, email updates, and one-on-one discussions. This creates context and predictability that helps to compensate for those instances when team members are remote from one another. Of course, sometimes things change and adjustment is required, but in general, keeping a consistent, clear structure regarding work styles and expectations is a critical way to create a common-ground team culture.

Find ways to build personal bonds. Both of us have found that one of the most powerful tools in easing potential conflict on a team is establishing personal connections. Naturally, different global cultures have different norms about relationship building. In some cultures, like the UK, it takes a long time for people to build a friendship; in other cultures, like Brazil, it seemingly happens overnight. Given this, you may not be able to encourage deep, personal relationships — but you can foster rapport and individual connections. Perhaps you discover that someone with a completely different background from you is also an amateur photographer, or you both have children who play the piano. You’d be surprised at the power of these personal bonds, especially on a multicultural team. Leaders must create conditions for these connections to form: Organize social events, pair quieter team members with vocal ones, or directly facilitate introductions between specific members who you think might have hidden commonalities. Chances are, the benefits will circle directly back to the team.

When conflict arises, address it immediately. Conflict is inevitable in any team, let alone a multicultural one. If tension arises, address it quickly so that a small conflict doesn’t balloon into something impossible to manage. Leaders need to be capable of understanding multiple cultural perspectives and serving as a cultural bridge between parties in conflict situations. This may require an understanding of indirect as well as direct communication styles, and a readiness to have a frank group discussion or confidential side conversations, depending on the situation.

Trust is the glue that makes any team function at a high level, but it doesn’t happen magically, especially in the case of a team composed of culturally diverse members. With the motivation to make things work and the tips above, you should be in a great position to leverage the benefits of diversity while minimizing its challenges.

Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of Global Dexterity (HBR Press, 2013) and the forthcoming book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, 2017). You can receive his free e-book to master ten key cultural codes from around the world. Follow Andy on Twitter: @andymolinsky.

Ernest Gundling, Ph.D., is a Managing Partner at Aperian Global, a firm that provides clients with leadership development, intercultural skill-building, and assignee support services for their global employees, as well as the online product, GlobeSmart®. He is the author of several books, including Leading Across New Borders: How to Succeed as the Center Shifts(Wiley, 2015).