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The potential and risks of Multicultural teams

In modern society, the fierce competition has spread over private and public sectors. As a result, the organizations are forced to offer more flexibility, greater efficiency and quality of services (Kaul, 1997). In the meantime, business and organizations are turning to be more and more internationalization and globalization caused by the technology development, national economic integration and globalizing markets (Heijltjes, Olie and Glunk, 2003). It not only means the companies become global, but also their members and teams are multinational. Organizations might benefit from their global teams, because of the better expertise or a large pool of various skills. However multinational team members usually link to diverse cultures. Therefore, it is criticized that the multi- culture might decline the teamwork efficiency (Shachaf, 2008). In this situation, a plethora of researches have been taken to analyze and evaluate multicultural organizations and teams. Positively, half of the researchers insure that diverse cultures would contribute to the team potential and the multicultural team would perform more outstandingly than homogenous teams. Whereas, others' studies indicated that the multicultural teams are born with high risk and imply that the diverse cultures would obstruct the teamwork. In order to improve teamwork performance and efficiency, it is necessary to focus on the effect caused by the diverse cultures and important to gain a better understanding. In this essay, the relevant concepts will be explained firstly. Then the main body presents the debate on the multicultural teams. By and large, a brief conclusion is illustrated to summarize the whole essay.

2 Relevant concepts

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2.1 Culture and multi- culture

Culture is complex and complicated. It has a multidimensional construction which can be studied on several different levels: global, national, ethnological, commercial, and organizational. In 1991, Hofstede defined culture as the concourse of the mind's programming which can identify people of one group or category from another. It is also explained as "shared motives, values, beliefs, identities, and interpretations or meanings of significant events that result from common experiences of members of collectives that are transmitted across generations'' (House, Dorfman, Gupta and Javidan, 2004). It usually influences the individuals by a wide range of factors, such as nations, organizations, languages and religions (Schein, 1992).

According to definition of culture, the multi- culture is defined in this essay as the team members' different national cultures or the heterogeneity of their cultures. It commonly includes the diversity of races, languages, religions, customs, ethnocentrisms and education backgrounds (Shachaf, 2008). Thus a conspicuously effect from culture diversity could be expected. Then it is the diversity born with the multi- culture that appeals the researchers to focusing on it. These studies indicated that culture diversity works both positively and negatively as the double- edged sword (Reus and Lamont, 2009).

2.2 Team and multicultural team

Team is defined as that persons with same working tasks and targets are related together (Mehmet and Faith, 2008). Some authors indicated that achievement of the whole team is considerable more significant than that of individuals (Malcolm, 2005; Redman and Wilkinson, 2009). With the purpose of increasing efficiency and performance, most organizations tend to utilize teams to accomplish tasks and solve issues. As a result, teams play a vital role in the organizations. Seen from team literature, the usage of team has a large amount of advantages, such as collecting various viewpoints, establishing a knowledge sharing environment for members, and improving mutual communications among members (Malcolm, 2005; Tom and Adrian, 2009). Conversely, some researchers maintained the utilization of teams may lead to certain disadvantages. Malcolm (1996) stated teams cannot be manipulated well when members are in huge number which beyond its scare.

Multicultural construction team is composed of members from different nations with culturally diverse background (Ochieng and Price, 2009). In terms of its importance to organizations, a plethora of researchers pay close attention to improving efficiency of multicultural team and analyzing what factors may have positive or negative effects on multicultural teamwork. Practically, multicultural teams are in possession of certain merits, especially when the teamwork demands various skills and perspectives (Ochieng and Price, 2009). However, when teams with diverse cultures, communication difficulty, religion barrier, and ethnocentrism can be regarded as obstacles to negate team performance and efficiency.

3 Risks from multicultural teams

With the increase of multinational and global interactions, multicultural teams have been the focus of international strategy management research for a couple of years. After that, dozens of researchers presented that diverse cultures in team are supposed to intensify the teamwork risk, which might negate teamwork performance. Namely, when the extent of differences is flourishing, the performance and efficiency of teamwork may be declining (Nam et al., 2009). Dainty et al. (2007) claimed cultural issues can lead to low efficiency of teamwork, when the distribution of team members is heterogeneous. Viewed from multicultural literatures, it becomes difficult to harmonize a plethora of diverse cultural factors which may generate conflicts, misunderstandings, confusions, low efficiency and unsatisfactory performance (Foley, 2006; Meyer and Ashleigh, 2007; Nam et al, 2009).

3.1 Team communication risk

Multicultural teams are most often also multilingual teams. Some scholars maintained the dissimilarities of cultural languages can create barriers to team members' communications (Cox, 1991; Von Glinow et al, 2004; Lauring and Selmer, 2010). On one hand, it is difficult for the team with multicultural context to reach an agreement on decision-making and common aims. Since team members might have different understandings of other members' verbal and body languages, and some members are possibly isolated from the information sharing for the language barrier (Malcolm, Ulrich and Jorg, 2005; Meyer and Ashleigh, 2007; Hartmut, 2010). If members cannot understand others, it means those dissimilar comprehensions of languages are supposed to bring about conflict and confusion. Similarly, members are more willing to communicate with the congeners. As a result, some authors considered that similar attractions can generate positive effects on communication in teamwork (Sacco and Schmitt, 2005), which means it might affect the efficiency of making decision for the whole team. However, if members are isolated from the information sharing, the lack of information might push them walking toward the dead end.

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On the other hand, in order to improve teamwork efficiency, it becomes necessary to unify the communication language in team and this language should be regarded as the unique official language in the process of teamwork. Without question, English is the most commonly acceptable international lingua franca (Janssens, Lambert and Steyaert, 2004). Even if teams adopt English as their corporate language, not all the members in team grasp this second language in same level. In this case, Feely and Harzing (2003) indicated that, comparing with the native language, communicating in second language might decline the communication frequency, lead to misunderstanding in communication and decrease the member's desire to communicate with other.

3.2 Team split risk

In multicultural team, with the increase of culture diversity, social comparison and classification processes might occur. Therefore these psychological processes, which are related with social identity theory and self-categorization processes, will create individual behaviours (Smith, Olian, et al., 1994). These behaviors are supposed to divide the team into race- based, gender- based, ethic- based or ideology- based groups. Furthermore, each group will conform to a certain norm and be natively against others (Tajfel and Turner, 1985). Also such cognitive biases may create communication barriers and harm social intercourse (Richard, Barnett, Dwyer and Chadwick, 2004).

This contention is bolstered up by Cox, Lobel and McLeod's (1991) research. They took an experiment among Asian, Hispanic, Black Americans and Anglo Americans. The former three ones are regarded belong to a collectivist culture, but Anglo Americans are belong to an individualist culture. In this case, Cox et al. hypothesized and figured out that Asian, Hispanic and Black Americans are closer with cooperative behavior and perform much better in a cooperation circumstance than Anglo Americans. It can be imaged that if there are four members in one team, three are from collectivist and one individualist, this team trends to divide into two groups. Since those people who prefer cooperation more lean to solidify others.

Another support stems from other researches on the sexual orientation diversity. Ragins and Wiethoff (2005) noted that gay men sense they are not similar to heterosexual ones and the lesbian women never request identification with heterosexual women. For heterosexual people, gay men are considered to be more feminine than normal ones, while lesbian women are seen as more masculine (Kite and Deaux, 1987). In multicultural teams, not every member is willing to work with the homosexuality. Those members who are born in an introverted character culture have a visible obstacle to accept gay men or lesbian women as their teammates which possibly split the whole team.

3.3 Team leadership risk

Multicultural team leadership is quite different from the traditional one. It requires the team leader or manager pays more attention to the cultural diversity, not only focuses on the tasks or aims (Makilouko, 2003). Culturally blind leadership style where only the traditional ways and methods are utilized might lead to grievous problems and trap the team in the mire (Selmer, 2002). For example, leaders can not ignore the education background diversity in different cultures. With reference to the educational background, different nations may have dissimilar teaching modes which include teaching contents, methodologies and world views (Moreno, 2001). If leaders attempt to introduce some incentives, they take education background diversity into account. Because the members educated in different cultures might prefer extremely different rewards, physical or mental.

In addition, if the team leader or manager is an expatriate, she or he is probably gradually isolated from other members and later has to face that few of her/ his decisions are actually implemented (Selmer, 2002). Obviously, for the expatriate, it requires much more to be the team leader than the native. However it seems that the ability of leaders to be the pilot in multicultural environments relies very much on the individuals. Teerikangas et al. (2001) suggested that some characters are culture finitude. Wills and Barham (1994) figured out that a successful leader normally connects with several special factors which they called "cognitive complexity, emotional energy, and psychological maturity". However an underlying risk might erupt in team in that it is not easy to identify a leader's characters.

4 Potential from multicultural teams

Although the risks from multicultural teams have been demonstrated above, to be objective, those certain perspectives and theories in current researches of management indeed maximize the problems and obstacles caused by diverse cultures (Stahl et al., 2010). Considering the risks from team in diverse cultures, however, there will be a large amount of potentials in multicultural teams. In 2010, Hartmut indicated the positive relationship between team in diverse cultures and its performance.

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4.1 Creativity potential

Viewed from diversity literatures, it should be noted that diverse teams are born with innovation (Mcleod and Lobel, 1992; Stahl et al., 2010). Multicultural members commonly have differences in backgrounds, thinking models, ideologies, information processing, and problem solving. These dissimilarities are regarded to be sources of diversity increasing creativity (Stevens et al., 2008). Seen from this angle, it becomes necessary to build teams in diverse cultures, when the teamwork depends on dissimilar knowledge and judgments. In 1997, Hardagon and Sutton claimed that creativity is considered as a combined product where the previously single elements become related. As a result, in multicultural teams, these various knowledge and viewpoints ought to result in better and higher quality perspectives.

Members, with various cultural contexts, are able to spark new perspectives in the process of teamwork. Govendo (2005) figured out that the total life experience of individuals plays an important role in creativity. The more sufficient and varied this experience is, the more opportunities to create fresh ideas. As a result, when teams come across difficult problems, teams with multicultural feature are positive to come up creative countermeasures than monoculture teams.

William (1999) stated the importance of cultural diversity in creativity. First and foremost, cultural diversity is able to bring different ways of thinking and behaviors. These dissimilarities are not in the same style. Therefore a team can do more contributions beyond its former expectation. Secondly, based on the multicultural feature, teams can provide more new and creative products and services, which will meet customers better. Then the whole organization will be benefited. Thirdly, those differences are able to create challenges. In the meantime, it can be observed that these are an upsurge of opportunities both to team and its members.

4.2 Potential of communication effectiveness

In retrospect, some authors claimed cultural diversity is able to negatively affect communication in the process of teamwork (Cox, 1991; Von Glinow et al., 2004; Edgar and Melanie, 2007; Hartmum, 2010; Lauring and Selmer, 2010). At the same time, a plethora of researches presented that the multicultural teams pale in communication activities, when compared with monocultural teams. However, according to the research studied by Stahl et al. (2010), it should be noted that multicultural teams are able to positively affect communication, when the researches refer to issues in deep degree. There issues can be conveyed to be values, ethics, ethnocentrism, and racism which are related to culture.

In the research of Stahl et al. (2010), when it comes to the members' cultural feature in deep level, it should be noted that individuals' different knowledge, values, worldviews, and attitudes are always considered to be the source of new knowledge or information, even if these cannot exist in a team harmoniously. Seen from this research, if members pay attention to the deep-degree factors of culture, they are likely to emphasis on the merits of diverse viewpoints for creativity. Consequently, this may be related to intercommunication. In the process of deep communication, team members are willing to explain their ideas more in details and serious, while the others may listen more carefully and give useful feedback, to some extent. As a result, the communication in multicultural teams may be more effectiveness in this situation.

4.3 Other potentials

Besides the creativity and communication effectiveness potentials, there are some other potential of teams in diverse cultures. As vast majority of articles demonstrated, cultural diversity is able to positively affect multicultural teams' capacity to learn (Fiol, 1994; Stahl et al., 2010). In details, within the multicultural teams, members are in possession of various cultural contexts. Because of their different background, they have different life experience, knowledge, ideas and customs, which can be exchange in the teamwork. As a result, the effectiveness of learning in multicultural teams may become more conspicuous than that of in monocultural teams (Herriot and Pemberton, 1995).

Subsequently, to date, multicultural teams may play a vital role in the organizations, especially when the organizations are in possession of international characteristic. As mentioned above, the teams with diverse cultures have communication effectiveness, creativity, and mutual learning potentials. Thus, based on this perspective, team members are able to learn more as well as to improve themselves. After the teamwork, it should be noted that members may have more abilities to do certain contributions to organizations. Meanwhile, members would like to keep contact with other members. These relationships may be helpful for team members to complete other tasks and missions in the organizations (Maloney and Zellmer-Bruhn, 2006; Stahl et al., 2010).

5 Conclusion

As many researchers reported, culture affects thinking model, behavior, and communication (House et al., 2004; Stahl, Makela, Zander and Maznaski, 2010). Therefore, it is considered to be an important element or source of diversity. Some scholars claimed that the multicultural teams are full of risks, whereas others maintained the potentials in culturally diverse teams are conspicuously. The following figure will demonstrate the risks and potentials of multicultural teams in details (Figure 1).

Figure 1 Risks and potentials in multicultural teams


Team communication risk

Team split risk

Team leadership risk

Team members may have different understanding of other's verbal or body languages.

Members are willing to communicate with congeners.

Official language in multicultural team is not easy to grasp for every member.

Individual behaviors caused by different psychological process, are supposed to divide the team into race-based, gender-based, ethic-based or other kinds of groups.

Cultural diversity in team requires team leader to pay attention to the multicultural conflicts and issues.

Expatriate leaders are more probably isolated from other members than those local ones.


Creativity potential

Potential of communication effectiveness

Other potentials

Members' different life experience and knowledge can spark new ideas and come up some creative countermeasures.

When refers to cultural issues in deep degree, it may result in effective communication in multicultural teams.

Team members can learn mutually in teamwork.

Members can use what they learn in multicultural teams to do more contributions to the organizations. Meanwhile, the relationship with other members may be helpful for them to complete other tasks in the organizations.

To be objective, the factors of multi-culture can generate positive and negative effects on teamwork. Obviously, it becomes vital to encourage its positive effects, and to manage its negative influences. In the future, it is valuable to propose certain countermeasures or practice to ensure multicultural team' performance, when its negative aspects appear.

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