84 harvard business review |

When a major international software developerneeded to produce a new product quickly, the project

manager assembled a team of employees from India and

the United States. From the start the team members

could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The

Americans thought the work could be done in two to

three weeks; the Indians predicted it would take two

to three months. As time went on, the Indian team mem-

bers proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production

process, which the American team members would find

out about only when work was due to be passed to them.

Such conflicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this

case they arose from cultural differences. As tensions

mounted, conflict over delivery dates and feedback be-

came personal, disrupting team members’ communica-

tion about even mundane issues. The project manager

decided he had to intervene–with the result that both the

American and the Indian team members came to rely on

him for direction regarding minute operational details

Teams whose members come fromdifferent nations and backgrounds place special demands on managers –especially when a feuding team looks to the boss for help with a conflict.

by Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, and Mary C. Kern















Managing Multicultural Teams

that the team should have been able to handle itself. The

manager became so bogged down by quotidian issues

that the project careened hopelessly off even the most

pessimistic schedule–and the team never learned to work

together effectively.

Multicultural teams often generate frustrating manage-

ment dilemmas.Cultural differences can create substantial

obstacles to effective teamwork–but these may be subtle

and difficult to recognize until significant damage has al-

ready been done. As in the case above, which the manager

involved told us about, managers may create more prob-

lems than they resolve by intervening. The challenge in

managing multicultural teams effectively is to recognize

underlying cultural causes of conflict, and to intervene in

ways that both get the team back on track and empower

its members to deal with future challenges themselves.

We interviewed managers and members of multicul-

tural teams from all over the world. These interviews,

combined with our deep research on dispute resolution

and teamwork, led us to conclude that the wrong kind of

managerial intervention may sideline valuable members

who should be participating or, worse, create resistance,

resulting in poor team performance. We’re not talking

here about respecting differing national standards for

doing business, such as accounting practices. We’re refer-

ring to day-to-day working problems among team mem-

bers that can keep multicultural teams from realizing

the very gains they were set up to harvest, such as knowl-

edge of different product markets, culturally sensitive

customer service, and 24-hour work rotations.

The good news is that cultural challenges are manage-

able if managers and team members choose the right

strategy and avoid imposing single-culture-based ap-

proaches on multicultural situations.

The Challenges People tend to assume that challenges on multicultural

teams arise from differing styles of communication. But

this is only one of the four categories that, according to

our research, can create barriers to a team’s ultimate suc-

cess. These categories are direct versus indirect communi-

cation; trouble with accents and fluency; differing atti-

tudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conflicting

norms for decision making.

Direct versus indirect communication. Communica-

tion in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit.

The meaning is on the surface, and a listener doesn’t have

to know much about the context or the speaker to inter-

pret it. This is not true in many other cultures, where

meaning is embedded in the way the message is pre-

sented. For example, Western negotiators get crucial in-

formation about the other party’s preferences and pri-

orities by asking direct questions, such as “Do you prefer

option A or option B?” In cultures that use indirect com-

munication, negotiators may have to infer preferences

and priorities from changes – or the lack of them – in the

other party’s settlement proposal. In cross-cultural nego-

tiations, the non-Westerner can understand the direct

communications of the Westerner, but the Westerner

has difficulty understanding the indirect communications

of the non-Westerner.

An American manager who was leading a project to

build an interface for a U.S. and Japanese customer-data

system explained the problems her team was having this

way: “In Japan, they want to talk and discuss. Then we

take a break and they talk within the organization. They

want to make sure that there’s harmony in the rest of

the organization. One of the hardest lessons for me was

when I thought they were saying yes but they just meant

‘I’m listening to you.’”

The differences between direct and indirect communi-

cation can cause serious damage to relationships when

team projects run into problems. When the American

manager quoted above discovered that several flaws in

the system would significantly disrupt company opera-

tions, she pointed this out in an e-mail to her American

boss and the Japanese team members. Her boss appreci-

ated the direct warnings; her Japanese colleagues were

embarrassed, because she had violated their norms for

uncovering and discussing problems. Their reaction was

to provide her with less access to the people and informa-

tion she needed to monitor progress. They would proba-

bly have responded better if she had pointed out the

problems indirectly – for example, by asking them what

would happen if a certain part of the system was not func-

tioning properly, even though she knew full well that it

was malfunctioning and also what the implications were.

As our research indicates is so often true, communi-

cation challenges create barriers to effective teamwork

by reducing information sharing, creating interpersonal

conflict, or both. In Japan, a typical response to direct con-

frontation is to isolate the norm violator. This American

manager was isolated not just socially but also physically.

She told us, “They literally put my office in a storage

room, where I had desks stacked from floor to ceiling and

I was the only person there. So they totally isolated me,

which was a pretty loud signal to me that I was not a part

of the inside circle and that they would communicate

with me only as needed.”

86 harvard business review |

Jeanne Brett is the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations and the direc-

tor of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illi-

nois. Kristin Behfar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California at Irvine.

Mary C. Kern is an assistant professor at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in New York.








Managing Multicultural Teams

Her direct approach had been intended to solve a prob-

lem, and in one sense, it did, because her project was

launched problem-free. But her norm violations exacer-

bated the challenges of working with her Japanese col-

leagues and limited her ability to uncover any other prob-

lems that might have derailed the project later on.

Trouble with accents and fluency. Although the lan-

guage of international business is English, misunderstand-

ings or deep frustration may occur because of nonnative

speakers’ accents, lack of fluency, or problems with trans-

lation or usage. These may also influence perceptions of

status or competence.

For example, a Latin American member of a multicul-

tural consulting team lamented, “Many times I felt that

because of the language difference, I didn’t have the

words to say some things that I was thinking. I noticed

that when I went to these interviews with the U.S. guy,

he would tend to lead the interviews, which was under-

standable but also disappointing, because we are at the

same level. I had very good questions, but he would take

the lead.”

When we interviewed an American member of a U.S.-

Japanese team that was assessing the potential expan-

sion of a U.S. retail chain into Japan, she described one

American teammate this way: “He was not interested in

the Japanese consultants’ feedback and felt that because

they weren’t as fluent as he was, they weren’t intelligent

enough and, therefore, could add no value.” The team

member described was responsible for assessing one as-

pect of the feasibility of expansion into Japan. Without

input from the Japanese experts, he risked overestimating

opportunities and underestimating challenges.

Nonfluent team members may well be the most expert

on the team, but their difficulty communicating knowl-

edge makes it hard for the team to recognize and utilize

their expertise. If teammates become frustrated or impa-

tient with a lack of fluency, interpersonal conflicts can

arise. Nonnative speakers may become less motivated to

contribute, or anxious about their performance evalua-

tions and future career prospects. The organization as a

whole pays a greater price: Its investment in a multicul-

tural team fails to pay off.

Some teams, we learned, use language differences to

resolve (rather than create) tensions. A team of U.S. and

Latin American buyers was negotiating with a team from

a Korean supplier. The negotiations took place in Korea,

but the discussions were conducted in English. Frequently

the Koreans would caucus at the table by speaking Ko-

rean. The buyers, frustrated, would respond by appearing

to caucus in Spanish – though they discussed only incon-

sequential current events and sports, in case any of the

Koreans spoke Spanish. Members of the team who didn’t

speak Spanish pretended to participate, to the great

amusement of their teammates. This approach proved ef-

fective: It conveyed to the Koreans in an appropriately

indirect way that their caucuses in Korean were frustrat-

ing and annoying to the other side. As a result, both teams

cut back on sidebar conversations.

Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority.A challenge inherent in multicultural teamwork is that

by design, teams have a rather flat structure. But team

members from some cultures, in which people are treated

differently according to their status in an organization,

are uncomfortable on flat teams. If they defer to higher-

status team members, their behavior will be seen as ap-

propriate when most of the team comes from a hierar-

chical culture; but they may damage their stature and

credibility – and even face humiliation – if most of the

team comes from an egalitarian culture.

One manager of Mexican heritage, who was working

on a credit and underwriting team for a bank, told us,“In

Mexican culture, you’re always supposed to be humble. So

whether you understand something or not, you’re sup-

posed to put it in the form of a question. You have to keep

it open-ended, out of respect. I think that actually worked

against me, because the Americans thought I really didn’t

know what I was talking about. So it made me feel like

they thought I was wavering on my answer.”

When, as a result of differing cultural norms, team

members believe they’ve been treated disrespectfully,

the whole project can blow up. In another Korean-U.S.

negotiation, the American members of a due diligence

team were having difficulty getting information from

their Korean counterparts, so they complained directly to

higher-level Korean management, nearly wrecking the

deal. The higher-level managers were offended because

hierarchy is strictly adhered to in Korean organizations

and culture. It should have been their own lower-level

people, not the U.S. team members, who came to them

with a problem. And the Korean team members were

mortified that their bosses had been involved before they

themselves could brief them. The crisis was resolved only

when high-level U.S. managers made a trip to Korea, con-

veying appropriate respect for their Korean counterparts.

november 2006 87

Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit.In many other cultures, meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented. The differences can cause serious damage to team relationships.

manent or temporary? Does the team’s manager have the

autonomy to make a decision about changing the team in

some way? Once the situational conditions have been an-

alyzed, the team’s leader can identify an appropriate re-

sponse (see the exhibit “Identifying the Right Strategy”).

Adaptation. Some teams find ways to work with or

around the challenges they face, adapting practices or at-

titudes without making changes to the group’s mem-

bership or assignments. Adaptation works when team

members are willing to acknowledge and name their cul-

tural differences and to assume responsibility for figur-

ing out how to live with them. It’s often the best possible

approach to a problem, because it typically involves less

managerial time than other strategies; and because team

members participate in solving the problem themselves,

they learn from the process. When team members have

this mind-set, they can be creative about protecting their

own substantive differences while acceding to the pro-

cesses of others.

An American software engineer located in Ireland who

was working with an Israeli account management team

from his own company told us how shocked he was by the

Israelis’ in-your-face style: “There were definitely different

ways of approaching issues and discussing them. There is

something pretty common to the Israeli culture: They

like to argue. I tend to try to collaborate more, and it got

very stressful for me until I figured out how to kind of

merge the cultures.”

The software engineer adapted. He imposed some

structure on the Israelis that helped him maintain his

own style of being thoroughly prepared; that accommo-

dation enabled him to accept the Israeli style. He also no-

ticed that team members weren’t just confronting him;

they confronted one another but were able to work to-

gether effectively nevertheless. He realized that the con-

frontation was not personal but cultural.

In another example, an American member of a post-

merger consulting team was frustrated by the hierarchy

of the French company his team was working with. He

felt that a meeting with certain French managers who

were not directly involved in the merger “wouldn’t deliver

any value to me or for purposes of the project,” but said

that he had come to understand that “it was very impor-

tant to really involve all the people there” if the integra-

tion was ultimately to work.

A U.S. and UK multicultural team tried to use their dif-

fering approaches to decision making to reach a higher-

Conflicting norms for decision making. Cultures dif-

fer enormously when it comes to decision making–partic-

ularly, how quickly decisions should be made and how

much analysis is required beforehand. Not surprisingly,

U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and

with relatively little analysis by comparison with manag-

ers from other countries.

A Brazilian manager at an American company who

was negotiating to buy Korean products destined for

Latin America told us, “On the first day, we agreed on

three points, and on the second day, the U.S.-Spanish side

wanted to start with point four.But the Korean side wanted

to go back and rediscuss points one through three. My

boss almost had an attack.”

What U.S. team members learn from an experience like

this is that the American way simply cannot be imposed

on other cultures. Managers from other cultures may, for

example, decline to share information until they under-

stand the full scope of a project. But they have learned

that they can’t simply ignore the desire of their American

counterparts to make decisions quickly. What to do? The

best solution seems to be to make minor concessions on

process–to learn to adjust to and even respect another ap-

proach to decision making.For example,American manag-

ers have learned to keep their impatient bosses away from

team meetings and give them frequent if brief updates.

A comparable lesson for managers from other cultures is

to be explicit about what they need – saying, for example,

“We have to see the big picture before we talk details.”

Four StrategiesThe most successful teams and managers we interviewed

used four strategies for dealing with these challenges:

adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and

working around them), structural intervention (changing

the shape of the team), managerial intervention (setting

norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and

exit (removing a team member when other options have

failed). There is no one right way to deal with a particular

kind of multicultural problem; identifying the type of

challenge is only the first step. The more crucial step is

assessing the circumstances – or “enabling situational

conditions”–under which the team is working. For exam-

ple, does the project allow any flexibility for change, or do

deadlines make that impossible? Are there additional re-

sources available that might be tapped? Is the team per-

88 harvard business review |

Managing Multicultural Teams

Team members who are uncomfortable on flat teams may,by deferring to higher-status teammates, damage their stature and credibility –and even face humiliation – if most of the team is from an egalitarian culture.

including the most unlikely, while the U.S. members

chomped at the bit and muttered about analysis paralysis.

The strength of this team was that some of its members

were willing to forge ahead and some were willing to

work through pitfalls. To accommodate them all, the

team did both–moving not quite as fast as the U.S. mem-

bers would have on their own and not quite as thor-

oughly as the UK members would have.

Structural intervention. A structural intervention is

a deliberate reorganization or reassignment designed to

reduce interpersonal friction or to remove a source of

conflict for one or more groups. This approach can be

quality decision. This approach, called fusion, is getting

serious attention from political scientists and from gov-

ernment officials dealing with multicultural populations

that want to protect their cultures rather than integrate

or assimilate. If the team had relied exclusively on the

Americans’“forge ahead”approach, it might not have rec-

ognized the pitfalls that lay ahead and might later have

had to back up and start over. Meanwhile, the UK mem-

bers would have been gritting their teeth and saying “We

told you things were moving too fast.” If the team had

used the “Let’s think about this” UK approach, it might

have wasted a lot of time trying to identify every pitfall,








Managing Multicultural Teams

november 2006 89

Identifying the Right StrategyThe most successful teams and managers we interviewed use four strategies for dealing with problems: adaptation

(acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them), structural intervention (changing the shape of the

team), managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team

member when other options have failed). Adaptation is the ideal strategy because the team works effectively to

solve its own problem with minimal input from management – and, most important, learns from the experience. The

guide below can help you identify the right strategy once you have identified both the problem and the “enabling

situational conditions” that apply to the team.


• Conflict arises from decision-

making differences

• Misunderstanding or stone-

walling arises from commu-

nication differences

• The team is affected by emo-

tional tensions relating to flu-

ency issues or prejudice

• Team members are inhibited

by perceived status differ-

ences among teammates

• Violations of hierarchy have

resulted in loss of face

• An absence of ground rules

is causing conflict

• A team member cannot ad-

just to the challenge at hand

and has become unable to

contribute to the project


• Team members can attribute a

challenge to culture rather than


• Higher-level managers are not

available or the team would be

embarrassed to involve them

• The team can be subdivided

to mix cultures or expertise

• Tasks can be subdivided

• The problem has produced

a high level of emotion

• The team has reached

a stalemate

• A higher-level manager is able

and willing to intervene

• The team is permanent rather

than temporary

• Emotions are beyond the point

of intervention

• Too much face has been lost


• Team members must

be exceptionally aware

• Negotiating a common

understanding takes


• If team members aren’t

carefully distributed, sub-

groups can strengthen

preexisting differences

• Subgroup solutions

have to fit back together

• The team becomes

overly dependent

on the manager

• Team members may

be sidelined or resistant

• Talent and training

costs are lost






Managing Multicultural Teams

extremely effective when obvious subgroups demarcate

the team (for example, headquarters versus national

subsidiaries) or if team members are proud, defensive,

threatened, or clinging to negative stereotypes of one


A member of an investment research team scattered

across continental Europe, the UK, and the U.S. described

for us how his manager resolved conflicts stemming from

status differences and language tensions among the

team’s three “tribes.” The manager started by having

the team meet face-to-face twice a year, not to discuss

mundane day-to-day problems (of which there were

many) but to identify a set of values that the team would

use to direct and evaluate its progress. At the first meet-

ing, he realized that when he started to speak, everyone

else “shut down,”waiting to hear what he had to say. So he

hired a consultant to run future meetings. The consultant

didn’t represent a hierarchical threat and was therefore

able to get lots of participation from team members.

Another structural intervention might be to create

smaller working groups of mixed cultures or mixed corpo-

rate identities in order to get at information that is not

forthcoming from the team as a whole. The manager of

the team that was evaluating retail opportunities in Japan

used this approach. When she realized that the female

Japanese consultants would not participate if the group

got large, or if their male superior was present, she broke

the team up into smaller groups to try to solve problems.

She used this technique repeatedly and made a point of

changing the subgroups’ membership each time so that

team members got to know and respect everyone else on

the team.

The subgrouping technique involves risks, however. It

buffers people who are not working well together or not

participating in the larger group for one reason or an-

other. Sooner or later the team will have to assemble the

pieces that the subgroups have come up with, so this ap-

proach relies on another structural intervention: Some-

one must become a mediator in order to see that the var-

ious pieces fit together.

Managerial intervention. When a manager behaves

like an arbitrator or a judge, making a final decision with-

out team involvement, neither the manager nor the team

gains much insight into why the team has stalemated.

But it is possible for team members to use managerial

intervention effectively to sort out problems.

When an American refinery-safety expert with

significant experience throughout East Asia got

stymied during a project in China, she called in

her company’s higher-level managers in Beijing

to talk to the higher-level managers to whom the

Chinese refinery’s managers reported. Unlike

the Western team members who breached eti-

quette by approaching the superiors of their Ko-

rean counterparts, the safety expert made sure

to respect hierarchies in both organizations.

“Trying to resolve the issues,” she told us,“the

local management at the Chinese refinery would

end up having conferences with our Beijing of-

fice and also with the upper management within

the refinery. Eventually they understood that we

weren’t trying to insult them or their culture or

to tell them they were bad in any way. We were

trying to help. They eventually understood that

there were significant fire and safety issues. But

we actually had to go up some levels of manage-

ment to get those resolved.”

Managerial intervention to set norms early in

a team’s life can really help the team start out

with effective processes. In one instance reported

to us, a multicultural software development

team’s lingua franca was English, but some mem-

bers, though they spoke grammatically correct

English, had a very pronounced accent. In setting

the ground rules for the team, the manager ad-

dressed the challenge directly, telling the mem-

bers that they had been chosen for their task ex-

pertise, not their fluency in English, and that the

90 harvard business review |








Managing Multicultural Teams

team was going to have to work around language prob-

lems. As the project moved to the customer-services train-

ing stage, the manager advised the team members to ac-

knowledge their accents up front. She said they should

tell customers,“I realize I have an accent. If you don’t un-

derstand what I’m saying, just stop me and ask questions.”

Exit. Possibly because many of the teams we studied

were project based, we found that leaving the team was an

infrequent strategy for managing challenges. In short-term

situations, unhappy team members often just waited out

the project. When teams were permanent, producing

products or services, the exit of one or more members was

a strategy of last resort, but it was used – either voluntar-

ily or after a formal request from management. Exit was

likely when emotions were running high and too much

face had been lost on both sides to salvage the situation.

An American member of a multicultural consulting

team described the conflict between two senior consul-

tants, one a Greek woman and the other a Polish man,

over how to approach problems: “The woman from

Greece would say, ‘Here’s the way I think we should do it.’

It would be something that she was in control of. The

guy from Poland would say,‘I think we should actually do

it this way instead.’ The woman would kind of turn red

in the face, upset, and say, ‘I just don’t think that’s the

right way of doing it.’ It would definitely switch from just

professional differences to personal differences.

“The woman from Greece ended up leaving the firm.

That was a direct result of probably all the different issues

going on between these people. It really just wasn’t a

good fit. I’ve found that oftentimes when you’re in con-

sulting, you have to adapt to the culture, obviously, but

you have to adapt just as much to the style of whoever is

leading the project.”

• • •

Though multicultural teams face challenges that are not

directly attributable to cultural differences, such differ-

ences underlay whatever problem needed to be addressed

in many of the teams we studied. Furthermore, while se-

rious in their own right when they have a negative effect

on team functioning, cultural challenges may also unmask

fundamental managerial problems. Managers who inter-

vene early and set norms; teams and managers who struc-

ture social interaction and work to engage everyone on

the team; and teams that can see problems as stemming

from culture, not personality, approach challenges with

good humor and creativity. Managers who have to inter-

vene when the team has reached a stalemate may be able

to get the team moving again, but they seldom empower

it to help itself the next time a stalemate occurs.

When frustrated team members take some time to think

through challenges and possible solutions themselves, it

can make a huge difference. Take, for example, this story

about a financial-services call center. The members of the

call-center team were all fluent Spanish-speakers, but some

were North Americans and some were Latin Americans.

Team performance, measured by calls answered per hour,

was lagging. One Latin American was taking twice as

long with her calls as the rest of the team. She was han-

dling callers’ questions appropriately, but she was also

engaging in chitchat. When her teammates confronted

her for being a free rider (they resented having to make

up for her low call rate), she immediately acknowledged

the problem, admitting that she did not know how to

end the call politely – chitchat being normal in her cul-

ture. They rallied to help her: Using their technology, they

would break into any of her calls that went overtime, ex-

cusing themselves to the customer, offering to take over

the call, and saying that this employee was urgently

needed to help out on a different call. The team’s solution

worked in the short run, and the employee got better at

ending her calls in the long run.

In another case, the Indian manager of a multicultural

team coordinating a companywide IT project found him-

self frustrated when he and a teammate from Singapore

met with two Japanese members of the coordinating

team to try to get the Japan section to deliver its part of

the project. The Japanese members seemed to be saying

yes, but in the Indian manager’s view, their follow-

through was insufficient. He considered and rejected the

idea of going up the hierarchy to the Japanese team mem-

bers’ boss, and decided instead to try to build consensus

with the whole Japanese IT team, not just the two mem-

bers on the coordinating team. He and his Singapore

teammate put together an eBusiness road show, took it to

Japan, invited the whole IT team to view it at a lunch

meeting, and walked through success stories about other

parts of the organization that had aligned with the com-

pany’s larger business priorities. It was rather subtle, he

told us, but it worked. The Japanese IT team wanted to be

spotlighted in future eBusiness road shows. In the end,

the whole team worked well together – and no higher-

level manager had to get involved.

Reprint R0611D

To order, see page 159.

november 2006 91

One team manager addressed the language challenge directly,telling the members that they had been chosen for their task expertise, not theirfluency in English, and that the team would have to work around problems.

Copyright 2006 Harvard Business Publishing. All Rights Reserved. Additional restrictionsmay apply including the use of this content as assigned course material. Please consult yourinstitution's librarian about any restrictions that might apply under the license with yourinstitution. For more information and teaching resources from Harvard Business Publishingincluding Harvard Business School Cases, eLearning products, and business simulationsplease visit

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