Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Jeanne M Brett on Multicultural Teams

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Jeanne M Brett on Multicultural Teams
March 2007 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Jeanne M Brett
DeWitt W Buchanan, Jr.,
Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations at Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University

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    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 another. Sooner or later the team will have to assemble the pieces that the subgroups have come up with, so this approach relies on another structural invervention: someone must become a mediator in order to see that the various pieces fit together.

    Managerial Intervention
    When a manager behaves like an arbitrator or a judge, making a final decision without 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.

    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 members, though they spoke grammatically correct English, had a very pronounced accent. In setting the ground rules for the team, the manager addressed the challenge directly, telling the members that they had been chosen for their task expertise, not their fluency in English, and that the team was going to have to work around language problems. As the project moved to the customer services training stage, the manager advised the team members to acknowledge their accents up front. She said they should tell customers, "I realize I have an accent. If you don't understand what I'm saying, just stop me and ask questions."

    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 voluntarily 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.

  • You observed that, " It's (Adaptation) often the best possible approach to a problem because it typically involves less managerial time than other strategies". What is the strategic /organizational rationale behind this?
    Managerial time is expensive and managers who are spending their time narrowly focused on the team are not doing what managers should be doing for their teams, e.g., obtaining resources for the team, selling the team's ideas and products to the broader company or the customer.

  • While outlining "Adaptation", you stated, " and because team members participate in solving the problem themselves, they learn from the process". Who should take the initiative ("to assume responsibility for figuring out how to live with them") to resolve the deadlock? On their own, different individuals would persist with their defenses for their non-conformity, after all. More than anything else, what's the incentive for the team members to acknowledge and take the responsibility for cultural differences?
    People like to work in "happy" environments. When cultural differences are creating an "unhappy" team or a non productive team, team members will be motivated to try to "fix" the problem.

  • You have stated, "when a manager behaves like a arbitrator or a judge, making a final decision without 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". What, then, is the role of a manager in a multicultural team setting? Is there any ideal time before which he shouldn't intervene?
    In the answer to question # 11, I suggested what the role of a team manager should be, in short, managing the boundaries of the team. However, at the onset of a new team, or when new members are brought into a team, or the team begins to work for a new client or customer, then the manager has the opportunity to set norms regarding team process. This is an excellent time to intervene. Other times to intervene are at annual performance review periods when a manager can get the team involved in analyzing what are we doing well, what could we be doing better.

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