Types of Work Groups
Groups are not all the same.2 One group of workers may have relatively independent jobs but may be in the same workspace or have the same boss. We might call these groups crews. Another group may collaborate closely with each other in a process in which the specialist knowledge of each one has to be closely integrated with that of the others. A good name for such groups is teams. A third group may be a temporary group expected to solve a specific problem or produce a report or design and then disband. This type of group is often called a task force.
These differences involve different ways of working together and therefore affect the cultural aspects of group functioning. Knowing when cultural intelligence matters most can help us to understand why cultural
differences have a big effect in some groups and not in others, which will aid in structuring work groups effectively. In crews, group functioning is often predetermined by set procedures and technology, which makes cultural intelligence less important. Task forces, such as the one in our case, might benefit from higher cultural intelligence but may not need to build long-term intercultural relationships. Teams, however, require highly developed trusting long-term relationships between their members, and cultural intelligence and the realization of cross-cultural potential are critical to their effective management.
Group Process and Performance In both face-to-face and virtual teams, group effectiveness is typically assessed by objective measures of group output, such as production, quality, and sales. However, group morale and cohesiveness, which tend to ensure that performance is maintained over time, are also important. In assessing groups, therefore, wise group leaders consider not just immediate performance but also the processes that the group uses, and the satisfaction and development of group members.
Groups are more than just collections of individuals, and they form their own social processes. Watching an effective team perform can be very exciting; being a member of one, even better. Some teams can, through their own processes, spontaneously create a dynamic of performance or innovation that external influence simply could not prearrange. In particular, in response to the feel-good aspect of working on an interesting problem with others who have different (but complementary) skills and outlooks, workers may release huge unrealized energy or creativity or ideas. It is often exciting to feel the stimulus to thinking that we get from someone who is from a different background, who thinks and talks in a way that is new to us. Different cultures increase the range of viewpoints and approaches available and are therefore a huge potential asset in many group situations. The trick is to create a process that encourages diverse team members and capitalizes on their differences to create this synergy.
On the other hand, groups can develop negative processes that undermine the potential of individual members and reduce group effectiveness. Two common negative processes are groupthink and social loafing.
• In groupthink the group overemphasizes harmony and consensus by
killing off dissent and creative alternatives.3 A famous example was the space shuttle Challenger disaster of 1986, where teams of officials in NASA and the supplying company Morton Thiokol were under intense pressure to ensure that the launch of Challenger was successful and on time. As a result of groupthink, they would not listen to engineers who were telling them that a vital component was likely to fail in cold weather. The launch was authorized in cold conditions, the component failed a minute or two after takeoff, and the spacecraft exploded, killing all on board.
• In social loafing individuals reduce their efforts to complete group tasks in the belief that others in the group will compensate to get the job done.4 For example, in tugof-war teams it has been found that as more and more members are added to a team, the average exertion that members apply to the rope decreases.5 Anyone who has been involved in completing group projects will have noticed at least one person who is not pulling their weight.
It is easy to see how cultural differences such as individualism/collectivism could work for or against such dysfunctional processes.6 For example, individualists are likely to take a stand against groupthink but are also more likely to take advantage of the group situation by social loafing.
FIGURE 7.1. Effect of process on group performance
The contribution of process to group effectiveness is the result of both the process losses (such as groupthink and social loafing) and the process gains, or synergies, created in part from the group’s diversity. This is shown graphically in Figure 7.1.
A key goal of a multicultural team is therefore to maximize process gains and minimize process losses. This is achieved through cultural synergy (getting the benefits of the cultural differences in the group) and overcoming destructive cultural conflict. The culturally intelligent manager must consider three features of groups through which culture influences their processes. As mentioned previously, the first of these involves the cultural norms and scripts for how groups function that each member brings to a group. The other two are the cultural diversity that exists in the group and the cultural distance between members.7
Cultural Diversity in Groups A group is diverse—or heterogeneous—to the extent that its members are
different from each other. Culture is only one dimension on which they are likely to differ; important others are gender, age, and experience.
There is both good and bad news about the effect of diversity in work groups. The bad news is that research has shown that it tends to negatively affect the way members feel about the group.8 Members of a diverse group are more likely to be dissatisfied with it and less likely to identify with it, which can lead to serious process losses.
Sometimes people respond to this kind of difficulty by deliberately deciding to avoid multicultural groups. This is one reason that countries that accept immigrants from culturally different countries find that despite the immigrants’ high qualifications, long experience, and strong work ethic, local organizations often prefer to employ less-qualified local people. Local low-CQ employers tend to think that if they employ immigrants they will suffer major process losses as the newcomers struggle to fit in. In addition, of course, they may simply be prejudiced against them.
To avoid process losses, some organizations have deliberate policies of making groups—particularly production groups—as homogeneous as possible. New Zealand, for example, has a high proportion of Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, and other Pacific Island workers in the labor force of its cities. Some factories focus on a particular Island community as the basis of their workforces, or try to ensure that work teams are made up of all Samoans or all Tongans. Although proponents of equal employment opportunity may not like such practices, some organizations claim that they ensure there is no ethnic conflict and that each employee feels comfortable with his or her “mates.”
This approach is understandable, but it represents a short-term view that does not promote the development of cultural intelligence. The process losses of diversity tend to be immediate, whereas the process gains of diversity take longer to show up. Effort and sensitivity shown in welcoming and orienting people who are culturally different are likely to be rewarded later on, when the process losses disappear and process gains kick in. This is the good-news side of diversity in work groups. Diversity tends to be positively related to group performance in organizational settings, especially when the diversity brings with it task-related skills.
We can understand this by considering what is likely to happen in a totally homogeneous group—that is, a group totally lacking in diversity. Consider a task force trying to solve a technical problem. They are all German. They are all male. They are all graduate engineers. They are all in
their fifties. They all studied engineering at the same university, and they are all long-service employees in the same department of the same company. You will probably agree that, competent though they may be, they are unlikely to come up with a range of different ideas.
Diversity provides groups with a wider range of ideas and viewpoints. Like all forms of diversity, diversity in culture encourages diversity in ideas. And the wider the range of ideas, the better the chance of finding good ones. Research shows that cultural diversity often results in more creative and higher-quality group decisions. This comes about not only because of more alternative viewpoints but also because consciousness of cultural difference focuses the group’s attention on process issues, including listening to minority viewpoints.9
In addition, being culturally different may relate directly to the group’s task. In an increasingly globalized world, culturally different group members may possess unique knowledge about culturally different environments. For example, a European or Chinese company planning to export to Brazil or India may recruit Brazilian or Indian members to provide information about relevant cultural or local-market features of their countries.
Cultural Distance in Groups Another important factor in diverse groups is the relative cultural distance of group members. Cultural distance refers to how different each group member feels from each other group member.10 For example, an Indonesian in a group with an American, a Canadian, and an Australian will feel much more distant than do the other group members, who are culturally similar. When we are very different from the others in a group, it is noticeable to them and to us.
People who are somewhat culturally different from others in their group find it easier than those who are very culturally different to become involved in group activities. Overcoming extreme cultural differences may be very difficult. Rather than trying to cross what may seem an unbridgeable gap, some members may withdraw from the group and keep their views to themselves, as happened to José in the Westerner-dominated group in our opening case. If members withdraw, their potential to assist the group is wasted. Group leaders need to decide how to respond to such a situation. For example, should they transfer culturally distant employees to another group where they will feel more at home, or should they try to bridge the cultural gap?
Summarizing research findings about diversity in teams, we can say that diversity provides a team with greater potential for excellence than does homogeneity. But because of the process-loss phenomenon, the risks are also higher that the group will fail.
Culturally Intelligent Group Management The existence of diversity in a group does not guarantee additional creativity; it merely makes it more possible. The task of the group leader is to facilitate a process that will encourage the creative side of diversity to flourish. Culturally intelligent people can do three things to reduce or eliminate process losses and to capitalize on diversity: (a) manage the environment of the group, (b) allow culturally diverse groups to develop, and (c) foster cultural intelligence in the group.
MANAGING THE GROUP ENVIRONMENT
The functioning of any group depends on its managerial environment: management support, rewards, group status, and opportunities for self- management.
Management Support. Any group requires good management support, such as material resources, relevant information, and psychological support in the form of goodwill and respect. Cross-cultural groups especially need managers who respect cultural difference and appreciate the potential of diversity to improve the organization’s creativity and performance. A culturally intelligent team leader attempting to capitalize on cultural diversity is nevertheless likely to fail if external management (particularly senior management) is seen to operate differently.
Rewards. As demonstrated by the case at the beginning of Chapter 4, individualists prefer to be rewarded on the basis of their own contributions. They believe rewards should be equitable. Collectivists often prefer all contributors to the group to be rewarded equally. This sounds like an impossible problem for those who have to decide on reward allocation in a multicultural group. Devising individualized pay systems rewarding each according to preference is impractical, and culturally diverse groups may develop their own consensus about an appropriate balance of individual and group rewards. However, the research on this topic suggests that in any culture, high-performing groups derive a substantial proportion of their rewards from group activities.11
Group Status. Regardless of cultural composition, a group’s high status in an organization will increase members’ self-esteem. However, the extent to which this is true also depends on cultural differences, particularly the place of the group in the individual’s life. In some (primarily collectivist) cultures, the family group is important to the individual above all others, and the work group much less important.
Self-Management. Providing objectives or general direction for groups— especially for teams—and allowing them to self-manage by finding their own processes is an option that is increasingly fashionable, especially when work is contracted out. Research suggests that self-management has advantages for many teams, cross-cultural or not. For cross-cultural teams, it additionally enables team leaders to develop unique group processes for overcoming the specific cross-cultural issues of the team, without interference from the outside.
DEVELOPMENT OF CULTURALLY DIVERSE GROUPS
A key element of group development is the selection and allocation of members. Team leaders usually have some discretion—moderated perhaps by legislation or local equal employment opportunity policies—to encourage or discourage diversity as they hire new staff or allocate staff to particular groups. Such decisions need to be carefully considered in relation to cultural issues. For example, are you prepared to accept and manage the likely short-term losses of greater diversity in order to benefit from the prospective longer-term gains?
One option is simply to wait for the group to develop. Research shows that newly formed culturally diverse groups reduce their process losses over time by finding ways of working together better. However, in today’s fast-paced world, waiting for this to occur on its own may not be practical. Culturally diverse groups often need feedback about the effectiveness of their processes, feedback that may be best presented from outside the group. Cultural intelligence helps managers strike the right balance between delegation and direction.
DEVELOPING CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN THE GROUP
The best way to capitalize on cultural diversity in groups is to ensure that members develop high CQ and that leaders have the will and the skills to explore process issues. Multicultural work groups provide excellent opportunities for members to develop their cultural intelligence. Contact with those who are culturally different can enable group members, by
being mindful, to develop their cross-cultural skills. By actively considering the different values, attitudes, and behavior of other members, they can develop their CQ. For this to occur the group must be structured in the following way:12
• All members should accept that they have equal status within the group (even though status elsewhere may differ).
• To ensure the positive effects of group interaction, the group should be actively engaged in a goal-oriented effort.
• The attainment of the common goal must require interdependent effort without competition among members.
• Finally, the support of authorities must create a norm for acceptance of the group’s activities.
In this type of contact, group members gain knowledge about the others who are different, and learn that their knowledge about their co-workers may be wrong or incomplete. Over time they will learn not to generalize about members of this cultural group and will understand and treat them as individuals. Engagement with culturally different people in pursuit of a common goal leads to understanding of the value of different perspectives. Finally, over time, individuals integrate these alternative perceptions into their own thinking. Through recognizing and learning to value differences (by seeing how they can contribute to achieving goals) they confront and reconcile differences in their own minds. By integrating alternative perspectives into their thinking they become more culturally intelligent.
A key element in addressing process issues is providing group members with feedback, which can come from each other and/or from external observers. By understanding the group’s dynamics and the causes of its difficulties, members can develop new and more productive ways of changing both their expectations of how the group should function and their own behavior in it.
Virtual Multicultural Groups A type of work group that is becoming increasingly important is the virtual team (or electronically mediated group) composed of people who do not necessarily meet face to face. Such groups are made possible by advances in information technology, including teleconferencing, videoconferencing, e-mail, collaborative software, and intranet-Internet systems.
Globalization, plus the fact that the output of more and more teams is in the form of information or decisions rather than products or services, makes such teams ever more common. Such groups may be geographically dispersed around the world. They solve some of the problems of face-to- face multicultural groups but create others.
THE NEW-PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT TEAM New Tech is a major producer of technology manufacturing equipment in Canada. Its employees have access to a wide range of communications technology, including videoconferencing, teleconferencing, telephone, voice mail, e-mail, and fax. The New-Product Development Team (NPD) has been formed to manage a strategic alliance with a competitor in France. The companies are co-developing products using components from each company, and they have cross-selling agreements. The team determines product specifications and is responsible for contract implementation and service. Both companies’ products require extensive engineering service, which makes the team members’ tasks highly interdependent. According to one team member, “A problem with a customer’s equipment could arise anywhere in the world, and we might have to fix it using engineers from both companies simultaneously.”
The team has eight members, three from the Canadian headquarters (including team leader Jean-Luc Dandurand), three more New Tech members from Western Europe (France, England, and Benelux), and the remaining two from the French partner. Three of the team members do not speak English fluently. The team has moderate cultural diversity. Strong differences have existed about whether members are responsible to the group or to themselves and whether careful planning or quick action is preferable.
The team met in regular two-day face-to-face meetings every two months for the first year and now meets every three months. In addition to clarifying miscommunications and making major decisions, the face-to-face meetings allow members to develop strong interpersonal relationships. Between the meetings, the members exchange information frequently (more than twice a day on average) with at least five other team members. The first preference for communication is telephone, followed by e-mail and fax. Not all members have reliable access to e-mail, and some
prefer to use it only for very simple information. So far the team has not performed up to either company’s
expectations, and the project is behind schedule. However, given that this is the first attempt at such a venture by either company, team members and management feel that getting this far is a major accomplishment. Product development quality is high, and customer response is good.
Jean-Luc says, “This project has had a lot of struggles. Sometimes we’re behind, and they [the French partner] have the upper hand; sometimes they’re behind and we have the upper hand. But we’re all learning, and we’re getting better, and we’ve had enough success in a very tough market that we intend to just keep going.”13
The team described above is typical of global virtual teams. As shown in the case, global virtual teams need to fit their communication patterns to the task. Face-to-face communication is often interspersed with the periods of remote communication.
In virtual teams, many of the normal cues of interpersonal communication are reduced or removed, so cross-cultural differences, including language differences, are less noticeable. Yet because it may be harder to notice group processes and cultural differences, problems relating to cultural differences may be increased. Some people feel uncomfortable using electronic forms of communication, particularly for complex, novel, or subtle information. When individuals have to work with others whom they cannot see or hear directly, it is more difficult to develop trust, and groups therefore tend to develop more slowly.
These are not reasons for avoiding geographically dispersed multicultural groups—again, information technology bestows a great boon by allowing groups to interact across enormous distances. But the managers of such groups must be especially patient and must create opportunities to introduce the missing characteristics of normal group functioning to the team. Some of the keys to overcoming the difficulties of geographic dispersion (virtuality) are
• developing a shared understanding among group members about goals and group processes
• using information technology (IT) to integrate members’ skills and abilities
• fitting communication patterns to the task
• developing trust among group members14
Making Multicultural Work Groups More Effective Clearly the existence and extent of multicultural work groups in any organization depends on factors external to the manager: the organization’s global spread and hiring policies, the composition of the available labor force, and top management support for diversity. Most managers who have to lead and supervise multicultural groups have little influence over these matters and have to accept each situation as they find it and do their best to make it productive. Many situations may be multicultural, but every situation is unique. Managing multicultural groups therefore requires not just CQ but also the knowledge and ability to perceive and take account of the group’s specifics, such as
• whether the group is a team, a task force, or a crew
• whether it faces routine or complex tasks
• its degree of cultural diversity, specific cultural issues, and whether it has come to terms with these
• whether the group has a natural process for surfacing and dealing with cross-cultural issues and for ensuring that all members contribute, regardless of their cultural origins
• whether it has the characteristics required to develop its members’ cultural intelligence
There may well be some culturally diverse groups that, because of the nature of their task or because they have found their own ways of functioning effectively, require little deliberate action to stimulate their cross-cultural understanding.
However, there will be other groups, particularly teams and perhaps task forces, that need to work together on complex tasks with leader/managers who are proactive in assisting them to examine, confront, and improve their processes. Cultural scripts can be so diverse and so embedded in team members that resolution requires a major effort. However, the development of cultural intelligence in the team can create a basis for mutual understanding and respect that will enable people to find their own ways to solve problems. The combination of CQ and team
process skills can be a winning one.
Summary Groups are in fashion. The popularity of team-based work environments, coupled with increasingly multicultural workforces, makes the ability to get the most from culturally diverse work teams an important current issue. In order to effectively manage or participate in multicultural work groups and teams, individuals need cultural knowledge, but also knowledge of group types, group tasks, and group structures and processes. The group itself must develop cultural intelligence, and culturally diverse groups can be an ideal place for individuals to gain greater CQ. Culturally diverse groups have the potential for both higher achievement and greater failure than single-culture groups. The trick they must perform is to maximize the positive effects of cultural diversity while minimizing its negative effects. This goal is achievable by high-CQ leaders who also use group-process knowledge, practice mindfulness in group interactions, adapt behavior to accommodate the unique circumstances of the group, and encourage and train members to become culturally intelligent.