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Communication Factors in Multicultural Team Environments

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Wordcount: 5423 words Published: 25th May 2020

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The main role in the organization’s success is played by the team or set of teams, consisting its structure (Team and Collective Training Needs Analysis : Defining Requirements and Specifying Training Systems by John Huddlestone, , Jonathan Pike, , Dr. Eduardo Salas, , Professor Neville A. Stanton, , and Don Harris PUBLISHER CRC Press LLC DATE 2016-02-18; page 3), since it has been identified as a way of managing sophisticated and fast-changing environments (Schneider). To be able to do so, companies promote the practice of creating multicultural teams and groups for diverse goals. Thanks to market globalization and the changes in the international law, (Understanding our differences: Performance in decision-making groups with diverse members Maznevski, Martha L. Human Relations; Thousand Oaks Vol. 47, Iss. 5,  (May 1994): 531-552.) diversity in companies has become possible. This movement enables people of different training, skills, background and values to contact within particular organization (Searching for common threads: understanding the multiple effects of diversity in organizational groups. Frances J.Milliken, Luis L.Martins, New York University, Academy of Management Review, 1996, Vol.21, No.2, 402-433) and let organizations to explore those people’s capabilities in order to increase its productivity. However, the formation and effective functioning of diverse groups are not always simple tasks and, actually, multinational firms realize them with varying success and loss (Hambrick et al., 1998, p. 181. Hambrick, d.C., Canney davison, s., snell, s.a. & snow, C.C. (1998). When groups consist of multiple nationalities: towards a new understanding of the implications. Organization Studies, 19(2), 181- 205). Besides providing the opportunity for creativity and innovation, bringing a range of perspectives, variants in making decision, the difference in teams can set problems in communication and conflict. These problems, in turn, can lead to the increasing dissatisfaction, frustration and team members’ high turnover(Schneider and Barsoux, 2003, p.219).

Effectiveness of multicultural teams work has become a major issue ([7] Earley and Mosakowski, 2000; [3] Brett et al. , 2007; [30] Weatherley, 2006).

According to Brett et al. and Schneider and Barsoux, the multicultural company encompasses with problems whilst working as the team due to cultural differences – communication style, language’s trouble, interpersonal conflict, different views on ranking and power, and contradictory standards for making the decision. (Brett et al, p.86; Schneider and Barsoux, 2003, p.219)

The first problem is the difference in styles of communication (direct and indirect). The style of communication in international business varies across the countries. For instance, some nations use direct style of communication, meaning that communicators say what they think, where the words must be interpreted clearly and literally. Direct style of communication is common among the nations such as Americans that want to emphasize individualism, independence. In this type of communication, the speaker is responsible for clear communication, for example, by asking direct questions, and the main purpose of communication is the sharing the information (Peace Corps, p. 78) (Building Bridges: A Peace Corps Classroom Guide to Cross-Cultural Understanding. Peace Corps, Washington, DC. Office of World Wise Schools. 2002, 52 pp.).

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In indirect communication, the meaning is conveyed by the words and nonverbal behaviours (tone of voice, pauses), subtext, and an extensively shared comprehension of the context of the communication. Indirect style aimed to avoid conflict, strain and inconvenient situations to maintain the harmony and safe face (Peace Corps, p. 78). In cultures, that may be relatively the same kind and make an accent on social relationships and interdependency, people develop profound and often unconscious understandings of what they have to expect in that culture. This style of communication is more related to collectivistic countries (for instance, Asian countries), where accent is on the work with collective organization and collective responsibility (International human resource management, Anne-Wil Harzing, Joris Van Ruysseveldt, 2009, p.146), and information is shared within the organization.

The ‘trouble with accents and fluency’ is the second problem in multicultural team (Brett et al, 2006). The flow of communication within the multinational is an essential factor of the ability to control and coordinate worldwide activities and to respond fast and flexibly to the changes. This is not an easy task since there are involved different channels – formal and informal, information come through the numerous directions (from the top to the down, down-up, horizontal and diagonal), and is sent via a mass of formats (such as oral, electronic, written, etc.) (In the shadow: the impact of language on structure, power and communication in the multinational. Author links open overlay panel Rebecca Marschan-Piekkaria Denice Welchb Lawrence WelchcInternational Business ReviewVolume 8, Issue 4, August 1999, Pages 421-440). The big issue in information exchange might be the language. Although English has become the language of international business, not all members of such groups know it well and speak fluently (people cannot share their knowledge). This problem, in turn, leads to inequality in the ‘playing field’, where Anglophones dominate in discussions (Managing across cultures, 2003, Susan C.Schneider and Jean-Louis Barsoux, Pearson Education Limited, p.232). Besides the problem with fluency, language has also different patterns such as silence (can be under-appreciated leading to the problems in relationship) or interruption during communications (people’s participation can be affected greatly), and the arrangement of words and phrases, creating sentences (define the possibility to interrupt negotiators) (Schneider (2003, p.233).  Conclusion

‘Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority’ is the next problem. While flat structure teamwork has become a trend in the businesses, such type of work is not acceptable by all. The reason is in the perception of the hierarchy and authority – a structure, that has many levels in relation to total numbers employed (Child J., chapter 3, p. Organization: A Guide to Problems and Practice, John Child,) and the power is concentrated in few hands, where such concentration is defined as ‘power distance’ (Hofstede, 2010, p.54). This term, identified by Gert Hofstede, explains the extent to which people accept the inequality of power distribution in different organizations (Cultures and organizations [electronic resource]: software of the mind : international cooperation and its importance for survival Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov.McGraw-Hill | c2010., pp.54-55 ). Hofstede argued that in countries with high power distance institutions are more likely to have more structures (levels) of hierarchy and a higher proportion of administrative staff, and decisions are maid by high level executives. In this situation, leaders will be appreciated as authorities because of having status and power (Susan C,Schneider and Barsoux, 2003, p.90). For example, in Korea subordinates cannot afford themselves to address to the head of an organization directly since, according to the hierarchical structure, movements of documents related to the organization’s performance have to be delivered from the lowest level to the highest. On the contrary, United States and some of Western European countries utilize egalitarian approaches of management – absence of orders to subordinates, ‘open-door policy, 360-degree feedback’ (Being the Boss in Brussels, Boston, and Beijing if you want to succeed, you’ll need to adapt, Erin Meyer, July-August 2017 issue, Harvard Business Review, pp.70-77), letting to exchange the information in a short period of time, for instance, claiming urgent decisions, and to figure out resolution. In addition, that flat structure encourages low-level personnel to be engaged in work and show initiative while in the hierarchical it is almost impossible.

The ‘conflicting norms for decision making’ is the next problem. Decision making varies across the nations – some prefer to do it quickly without comprehensive and deep analysis, while others need more time to make final decision. Such types of making decision depends on ‘behavioural history, situational beliefs, personal values, social and occupational norm, personality, and environmental constraints’ (Parkin, 2007. Organizational decision making and the project manager, James Parkin, International Journal of Project Management Vol.14, No.5, Pages 257-263), culture (Culture and decision-making: Investigating cultural variations in the East Asian and North American online decision-making processes, Liman Man Wai Li, Takahiko Masudo, and Mattew J.Russell, Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2015, 18, pp.183-191; Reasons as Carriers of Culture: Dynamic versus Dispositional Models of Cultural Influence on Decision Making, Donnel A.Briley, Michael W.Morris, Itamar Simonson, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol.27, Issue 2, September 2000, pp.157-178), style of running the company (individual or collective decision). For example, United States companies are characterized by a desire to solve the tasks posed by the project with minimal time and the least possible use of resources, and they prefer to make decision without involving staff in decision making. On the contrary, some European and Asian representatives before signing contracts have to study documents, analyze it and, if it is essential, return back to the beginning in order to pose additional questions. Moreover, some nations may try to involve all staff in decision making to preserve group relationship and harmony and to preserve everyone’s right to decide (Schneider, 2003, pp.108-109). The main reason of long and deep decision making is to creat the most complete and detailed picture, taking into account all factors significant from their point of view and finding the best solution since making decision in the businesses involve different kind of risks and consequences. Although the process of decision making in Asian and some European countries takes a great amount of time, but the implementation of accepted decision is quick. Having a number of advantages, this approach nevertheless requires significantly more time, attention and other resources, which can negatively affect the results of the work of project teams.

The richness of the diverse team can become the trigger for conflicts (Schneider and Barsoux, 2003, p.219). For example, less abilities to speak or understand foreign language, and share their knowledge with other colleagues who are dominant in language fluency, force people to be less confident in own future in this team. The differences in the style of communication, direct or indirect, may also affect the relationships in multicultural team since the patterns of the style may be interpreted differently by members of the team. With conflicting decision-making norms, some team members prefer to make decisions quickly and they may grow frustrated with those who need more time (Brett et.al, 2006). Therefore, conflict can affect team significantly, leading to wasting time and energy of group members, the increased turnover and may become the reason why investment in multinational companies do not bring benefits to owners.

For the organizations, to improve the work of multicultural teamwork is vital. It is possible to form teams from different countries and institutions to work together effectively. The main task for project leaders is to understand and overcome cultural differences (Framework for managing multicultural project teams Edward Godfrey OchiengPrice, Andrew David.Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management; Bradford Vol. 16, Iss. 6,  (2009): 527-543.). There a large number of prescriptions how to deal with effective performance of team suggested by researchers (Brett et al, 2006, p.). In general, the offer to create a main purpose, set specific targets, to have and apply appropriate skills, availability of resources (internal and external), create task and process tactics, evaluate and provide feedback on team’s achievements. However, the expectations of diverse teams are expressed differently in understanding the task strategy (structure of the task, roles and responsibilities of team members, and how decision need to be made) and process strategy (building of the team, language for communication, members’ involvement, finding solutions of conflict, team appraisal) (Schneider, 2003, p.220-223). Thus, these expectations have to be discussed before the team can move to the task, meaning that some expectations will be pronounced and, therefore, all team members will know about having different expectations (Project Management T-kit, Dirk de Vilder, p.81). The main idea of such discussions is to establish shared strategy of team work, and it gives an opportunity to identify cultural differences and discuss rather than ignoring them. This starting point in team’s will be helpful because it allows to create friendly and open environment with open discussions of differences in cultures.

In order to present successful solutions to problems, to be effective, and to avoid wasting of resources, time, potentials, teams have to develop strategies for managing the main task and its process (Schneider, p.219 Schneider and Barsoux presented). The task strategies include:

1)    The creation a sense of purpose. Without the shared sense of purpose teams is going to lose their motivation. It has to developed within the team since the shared sense of purpose is one of the most important factor in the team’s success. However, the creation of the sense of the purpose is not a simple task as the team’s member can have different assumptions about the information sharing and problems discussion, making decision and actions taking, building relationships within the team. These, in turn, will help to define the problems related to how often meetings and contacts have to be established, who should be at the meetings, the kind of meetings (conference calls or face to face meeting), and the time needed for setting. There is also different assumption about who have to involved in task. While in the task-oriented culture must be people with appropriate skills and knowledge in order to make the job done, in cultures with importance of hierarchy must be people with power and influence because it assigns the importance of the team (Schneider, p.224). In collectivistic culture, there would be involved many members and some of them with irrelevant knowledge in order to create the sense of belonging to the team.

decided how the task should be structured (setting of agenda, time and place of meetings, deadline of the tasks, responsible members).

2)    After creating the sense of the purpose, there have to be set agenda. Due to the cultural differences, the setting of agenda is also differing. For instance, some nations (monochronic) prefer to relate all statements to particular items of agenda, respecting deadlines, do not shrink from this plan in order to avoid uncertainty (Hofstede, ) and one person will be speaking at time in the meeting, while others (polychronic) can discuss and consider many problems during the same meeting, where deadlines are accepted as guidelines, and several people will speak at the same time.

3)    The next step is nominating roles and responsibilities. There are also differences as, for example, in individualistic culture, team members prefer to work alone, taking personal responsibility and being accountable. On the contrary, in collectivistic culture, the task will be done interdependently together, without keeping accounts of what who have done. Besides, the team leader choice is also differing due to cultural assumptions – some has to have interpersonal skills, other has to demonstrate appropriate to the field knowledge, and other will be chosen due to having power and influence in the organization. Moreover, the team leader can be a chairman and make final decision because it is his or her duty in cultures where the hierarchy plays crucial role. Contrarily, the role of the chair in egalitarian cultures can be offered to the team members and decision will be made during discussion through consensus. In cultures where they are respect age, status, titles, these also influence participation and decision making of team members and, therefore, they cannot be on equal position (Schneider, p. 228).

4)    Reaching decision has cultural influence in the way how decision is made and what base is taken – voting, consensus or compromise (p.228). Voting is process related to more democratic way of decision making since it allows members to present their opinions and their votes are counted equally.

Although consensus is a way for obtaining consent for acceptance of the best idea, it may be chosen as a way for preserving harmony in the team to avoid conflict. However, this approach is time-consuming and cannot guarantee the best solution.

Compromise may be accepted as a trustworthy solution to different opinions and it should be supported with intellectual arguments, but for France this way can be destructive as it damages their plans. Besides, due to differences in clarity, for some culture decisions will be recognized after its formal recognition, while for others it is not essential to write down. Therefore, to find a common approach to work together, the team has to agree on the task strategy (Schneider, p.228-229)

After the task strategies identification, then there have to be established the process strategies which include (Schneuder and Barsoux, 2003, pp.229-):

1)    A team building. The view how the team is building is varying across the nations. For example, some nations understand this as a process of collecting individuals in one group, setting the goal, providing with resources and expecting its effective functioning, and fixing its performance where it is needed. But there is also idea that building the team is a cooperation to survive (for instance, in the tough circumstances where team members efforts have to be cooperated in order to be on the surface), and building the trust between team members since trust is an important part of the effective team. However, trust is acknowledged in different way across the cultures. While some create trust just being friendly, others do it through proving competencies and knowledge, interpersonal treats (honesty, predictability).

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2)    The language plays important role in the communications; therefore, it is crucial to choose the common language of sharing information within the organization (negotiation strategy). Regarding to people’s language abilities (fluency and accents), managers of multicultural team can solve this problem through presenting some solutions as slow speaking, asking for clarification, paraphrasing and visual recording, using low-context approach (pp. 231-234). In addition, language also has patterns – non-verbal (gestures, signs) and sentences construction, which affect communication due to different interpretations by communicators, as mentioned earlier. Moreover, the team has to negotiate the channel of communication flow – by using technologies in meetings or face to face meetings. Although technologies have facilitated communications within the team and across the world, they cannot transmit all spectrum of feelings and can be perceived differently (too direct, without status and hierarchy appreciation). Thus, the choice of communication, how and when it will be applied, has to discussed and accepted by team.

3)    Elicit participation claims attention because of the differences in language appliance and capabilities among the members of the team. For example, some can be salient among foreigners, other prefer to listen rather than speaking. In order to make all members to take participation in offering some solutions and making decision, there can be arranged face to face or in informal meetings that encourage these people to share ideas.

4)    Conflict is a part of multicultural team’s work due to the cultural differences that can affect its performance. To avoid it and increase effective functioning of a team, there have to be developed and used different mechanisms. Researchers have identified various ways of resolving conflict according to some modes. For instance, Kenneth W.Thomas (Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update, Journal of Organizational behaviour, vol.13, 1992, pp.265-274) classified according to personal styles – competing, collaborating, compromising, avoiding, accommodating manners – which do not take into an account cultural patterns. Gladwin and Walter (Thomas N. Gladwin, and Ingo Walter. Multinationals under fire, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1980, 689 p.) classified aforementioned ways according to the cultural aspects, that are connected with power, collective or individual gains, importance of what is on the stake. While cultures with high power distance, mutual gains and relationship have little interest, manage conflicts by avoiding and confrontation, leading to negative reaction within the team, cultures with low power distance do it through collaboration. However, avoiding conflict method have some benefits, such as agreement in negotiations and preserving relationships, harmony and saving face.

Relationship-oriented and with concern for interdependence and common obligation cultures (collectivistic cultures) are likely to apply accommodating. When the degree of the stake is increasing, individualistic cultures are aimed to get as more as possible rather than building the relationships using competing way.

It is clearly that conflict has a root in unsolved cultural differences. Therefore, regardless the degree of conflict (little or big), it must be solved in the team since it leads to wasting resources and increased turnover (pp.236-238).

5)    Team’s work progress has to be evaluated continuously in every stage (task and process) with opportunities to reflect and learn. Applying this strategy means establishing a time for evaluation of members’ contribution in teamwork, appraise the whole team performance, discussing the dynamics and resolving differences. However, not all cultures are ready to give and receive feedback on their performance and it may become the problem for team. For example, where for some cultures it is easy to share feedback and be sure that it will be accepted in used later in order to improve the team’s environment, for other cultures it is not appropriate. Moreover, in some cultures feedback can be provided in informal atmosphere outside the workplace. Thus, these differences in evaluation team performance have to be taken into an account, discussed and negotiated. These, in turn, will help team members to learn, understand and deal with such differences.

Presented be Schneider and Barsoux strategies are not universal and core framework for implementation, but the purpose of such strategies is to motivate discussion of differences within the team and develop a common strategy that will bring positive effect for whole team.


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Framework for managing multicultural project teams

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  • Getting multicultural project teams to work effectively across international boundaries has become a major issue ([7] Earley and Mosakowski, 2000; [3] Brett et al. , 2007; [30] Weatherley, 2006).
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  • Language is another factor that affects multicultural project teams ([3] Brett et al. , 2007; [25] Reva and Ataalla, 2002).
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