Scholars have been paying attention to issues related to team-building across cultures for several decades, amassing a considerable body of knowledge on the subject. This literature review will analyze the current state of research on team building across cultures to establish the central scholarship issues (Creswell & Creswell, 2018). It will identify the major themes in the research on the challenges and positive factors in cross-cultural team-building and then reflect on specific approaches to leadership noted to be beneficial for team-building across cultures.
The reason why team-building across cultures attracts considerable scholarly attention for several decades in a row is that it may represent a formidable challenge. Team-building may be a difficult process even when undertaken among the team members belonging to the same culture, but organizing a diverse team has its own inherent obstacles. More often than not, the theoretical discussion of cultural differences is based on Hofstede’s writings (2001). In his work, he identified five cultural dimensions: power distance, uncertainty avoidance, masculinity-femininity, individualism-collectivism, and long-term orientation (Hofstede, 2001). Many studies focused on the challenges of team-building across cultures pay deference to this seminal work (Adair et al., 2013; Irving, 2010; Liu, 2018). However, they generally do beyond identifying specific cultural differences and instead reflect on the processes where the difficulties related to these processes can manifest. The processes addressed most often are communication and learning, and this section will be structured accordingly.
The first major communication-related challenge in team-building across cultures is, unsurprisingly, related to language. It does not refer to the team members’ blatant inability to understand each other, as this issue is fairly straightforward and easily identifiable at the stage of identifying team members. Rather, it points to the difficulties arising from the team members’ unequal mastery of the language serving as lingua franca or vehicular language in a given team, most often English. Juracek and Potocky (2020) suggest that disparities in the mastery of English can lead to disharmonious teams and even enmity between the team members due to the perceived or real difference in treatment. In a similar vein, Garcia and Cañado (2005) demonstrate how disparities in language proficiency can create a power imbalance between the team members that is constantly reproduced in the communication process. Thus, unequal proficiency in vehicular language creates a set of challenges and is most likely to manifest in multicultural teams.
Another challenge related to communication that is directly relevant to intercultural team-building concerns etiquette and politeness. Cultures not only have different ideas of politeness and propriety but also put a different emphasis on their importance. Team members who have a perfectly sufficient command of vehicular language to solve work-related tasks may still not be well-versed in polite forms used in other cultures. Aleksandrowicz-Pędich (2019) points out that it can present a considerable issue for team members coming from cultures that put a heavy emphasis on politeness toward colleagues, clients, elders, etc. Hence, research demonstrates that communication challenges in multicultural teams may go beyond the purely functional use of language.
Loss of meaning may also be a prominent issue in communication occurring in diverse, multicultural teams, making it yet another potential obstacle for team building. Kayes et al. (2005) point out that, even when both interlocutors have a reasonable command of the same medium of communication, there is still no certainty the information will be encoded and decode correctly. According to their study, the loss of meaning frequently occurs when there is a transfer of knowledge between the representatives of different cultures. White (1989) notes that it happens particularly often when there is no pre-established agreement of the meaning of seemingly obvious utterances that are, nevertheless, used differently in the interacting cultures. Her study of the American-Japanese intercultural communication revealed any such instances – for example, Americans interpreted “Yes” as “I agree,” while, for ten Japanese, it meant “Yes, I am listening” (White, 1989, p. 62). As such, loss of meaning is yet another communication-related challenge to team-building across cultures identified in the scholarly literature.
Apart from that, studies have also identified issues related to non-verbal communication in teams featuring representatives of different cultures. Non-verbal communication refers to all behaviors that are intended to convey information yet are not expressed through vocal utterances. Misreading nonverbal messages or disregarding them altogether is another set of challenges inherent in communication in multicultural teams. Chitakornkijsil (2010) notes that people coming from low-context cultures that do not assign particular importance to non-verbal communication may have trouble reading the meaning behind nonverbal behaviors. Similarly, Shi and Fan (2010) identify the difficulties in delivering or reading nonverbal cues as one of the most frequent and statistically notable issues that arise in communication in multicultural teams. This is yet another communication-related challenge inherent identified in the research.
Scholarly literature identifies learning as the second process in which the difficulties inherent in building multicultural teams manifest. Generally speaking, the research focuses on two distinct areas where such challenges are likely to emerge: learning about the team members’ cultures and learning about the work process itself. According to scholars, both can undermine the efficiency of the team severely, whether due to unequal pace at mastering work-related operations or because of the pervasive hostility arising in the collective.
In terms of learning about the work, research suggests that the differential in power distance may be a considerable challenge in building a successful multicultural team. Zander (2020) states that considerable power distance between the members of a given team is inversely proportional to team-building efficiency. A possible explanation is that, in high-power-distance culture, learning is usually seen as instructive and, as such, the prerogative of the superior who disseminates knowledge. For instance, Zhang (2013) demonstrates that Chinese students may experience difficulties when learning in organizational contexts with small power distance because they perceive learning as an instructor-dominated process and are less likely to demonstrate initiative. Wang and Guan (2018) point out that employees coming from cultures with higher power distance perceive authoritative instruction and supervision positively and tend to improve when exposed to it. At the same time, Liu (2018) shows that the employees from cultures with low power distance are likely to oppose such an approach as too limiting and detrimental. Considering this, team members used to different power distances may complicate the establishment of efficient learning and instruction practices to the extreme.
As for learning about the cultures present in the team, the main challenge is often the lack of motivation to do so. While it is often assumed that multicultural teams provide a boost to creativity due to the confluence of ideas from different cultures, it should not be taken for granted. Jehn and Mannix (2001) demonstrate that, as organizations become more culturally diverse, conflicts almost inevitably arise due to different cultural expectations of their members. Chua (2013) points out that an increase in diversity may cause the activation of negative stereotypes about other cultures. When the motivation to learn about a different culture is low, stereotypical judgments become dominant and can severely undermine the performance of a multicultural team.
Moreover, the conflicts caused by stereotypical judgments due to low motivation to learn about the team members’ culture impact not only those directly involved but the entire team as a whole. Chua (2013) describes this phenomenon through her concept of ambient cultural tension, which refers to how the “effects of intercultural tensions and conflict [can] spill over, influencing uninvolved observers as well” (p. 1545). Other studies also confirm that ambient cultural tension reduces the overall productivity of all team members and not only those participating in conflicts directly (Castañeda, Huang, & Avalos, 2018). With this in mind, the unwillingness to increase the awareness and understanding of the others’ cultures impedes the progress of the team as a whole and not only its individual members. As such, it constitutes yet another challenge in terms of team-building across cultures.
In both regards, it is also necessary to be aware of the difference between consensus and non-consensus cultures. It is similar to the power distance difference described above but focused more on developing relationships in the decision-making process. In consensus cultures, the relationships are as important as the decision itself and built with a long-term orientation since they are crucial not only for reaching the decision but also for ensuring it works (Sebenius, 2002). In non-consensus or top-down cultures, the decision-making process is much swifter, and building relationships between the deciding parties is perceived as not particularly important and even detrimental if it slows down the process (Sebenius, 2002). Hence, apart from the decision-making process itself, the differences in the willingness to learn about each other and build long-term relationships may also be a source of mutual frustration in consensus and non-consensus cultures.
With the increased attention to multicultural teams in research, the topic of the factors that can influence team performance positively and help in overcoming the challenges outlined above receives its fair share of scholarly attention. Studies have identified such factors on individual and organization levels alike. This section will briefly cover the most notable of those as identified in the scholarly works up to date.
The ability to maintain communication in more than just the team’s operational language of choice is strongly associated with better performance in multicultural teams. Froese et al. (2016) note that the team members’ proficiency in each other’s languages contributes positively to the performance of a culturally diverse team. The resulting ability to articulate thoughts in the interlocutor’s native language and using the concepts inherent in it is what the authors identify as the crucial factors for building intercultural teams. It is most useful for preventing the loss of meaning that often occurs in intercultural communication (Kayes et al., 2005). Hence, the research identified multiple language proficiency is one of the crucial positive factors for team-building across cultures.
The individual motivation to learn about each other’s cultures is also an essential positive factor. In most cases, the research addresses this topic through the concept of motivational cultural intelligence – that is, the willingness to interact with people of other cultures. Bogilović and Škerlavaj (2016) emphasize that the willingness to learn about other cultures and the ability to change one’s concept of them is a strong predictor of effective team participation in diverse environments. Similarly, Pieterse, Knippenberg, and Dierendonck (2013) note that higher levels of motivational cultural intelligence have a positive effect on the efficiency of information exchange within the team. Thus, motivational cultural intelligence is an unequivocally positive trait for multicultural team members.
Behavioral cultural intelligence – that is, the ability to successfully interact with people of different cultures in practice – is directly linked to motivational cultural intelligence. Gooden et al. (2017) show that the latter serves as a strong predictor of the former. Adair, Hideg, and Spence (2013) demonstrate that higher behavioral cultural intelligence promotes the development of shared values in a multicultural team. This observation is particularly important for team-building across cultures because, according to the same authors, high levels of behavioral cultural intelligence are actually detrimental to the emergence of shared values in culturally homogenous teams (Adair, Hideg, & Spence, 2013). Overall, research demonstrates that cultural intelligence – motivational and behavioral alike – is an important prerequisite of success for multicultural teams.
On an organizational level, scholars suggest that higher levels of learning culture are also a positive factor for multicultural team performance. According to Potnuru et al. (2019), higher levels of learning culture correlate strongly with more efficient team-building. Chmielecki and Contreras-Loera (2020) second this notion by pointing out that the local learning climate is directly relevant for individual and team performance in multicultural environments. Hence, organizational learning culture is also identified as a positive factor.
There is an almost universal agreement that the responsibility for creating and maintaining this culture falls to the leaders. Research highlights the importance of leaders as role models, organizers, mediators, and arbiters in multicultural settings (Chmielecki & Contreras-Loera, 2020; Liu, 2018; Zhang, 2013). The most prominent theoretical concepts used to rationalize the leader’s role in the context of building a multicultural team are cultural intelligence and global mindset. The former has been elaborated on above, and the latter refers to the leaders’ ability to influence people, groups, and organizations that are unlike their own (Irving, 2010; Kyvik, 2018). As one can see, the definitions of cultural intelligence and global mindset overlap strongly. Based on the exhaustive literature survey, Andresen and Bergdolt (2017) arrive at a conclusion that cultural intelligence is mainly concerned with operational-level leadership, while global mindset refers more to the leadership on the higher normative and strategic levels but. Other than that, though, the difference is not particularly significant.
To summarize, the research identified several positive factors crucial for effective team-building across cultures. Team members’ proficiency in each other’s languages realty improves the efficiency of communication and reduces loss of meaning. Motivational and behavioral cultural intelligence addresses the danger of conflicts and ambient cultural disharmony while promoting the emergence of shared values in multicultural teams. An organizational learning culture is an important factor as well, and the leaders are responsible for promoting and maintaining it by demonstrating such competencies as cultural intelligence and global mindset, depending on the level they operate at.
While there is an extensive number of scholarly publications on the challenges and positive factors involved in team-building across cultures, the literature on the specific leadership approaches to the issue is not as plentiful. When the scholars identify such approaches, there is no agreement on which of them is the best option to proceed. This section will cover two competing approaches to leadership in multicultural teams as identified in scholarly literature.
The first of these is what one may call a culture-specific approach. It generally amounts to educating leaders about a given culture and preparing them to interact with its representatives by providing relevant information and developing interaction guidelines. Earley and Peterson (2004) note that, historically, this approach was the first one to emerge as an answer to the challenge of building and managing a multicultural team. Graf (2004) also points out that this approach has remained popular since its emergence, which signifies its viability. At the same time, it has the downside of only preparing a leader to interact with a specific range of cultures, which may prove insufficient in an increasingly diverse environment.
The second option discussed in scholarly literature is the culture-general approach. Unlike the culture-specific approach outlined above, it focuses not on the knowledge of particular cultures but, rather, on the cognitive and metacognitive ability to adapt to different cultural contexts. Kayes et al. (2005) elaborate that, instead of developing sets of preferred decisions for specific cultures, the culture-general approach focuses on the universal questions a leader should ask and answer whenever operating in a multicultural setting. According to them, these general questions include the possibility of practice transfer from one culture to another, the risk of the loss of meaning, the implications of translating one culture’s knowledge to another culture, and so forth (Kayes et al., 2005). Earley and Peterson (2004) suggest this option as a superior alternative to the culture-specific approach due to the fact it should prepare leaders to act in any number of cultural contexts rather than limiting them to a specific selection of known cultures.
While there is some literature on both approaches, the comparison of their relative efficiency remains elusive. The only study found to specifically deal with the advantages or disadvantages of culture-specific and culture-general training belongs to Graf (2004). Based on the research sample drawn from the MBA students in the United States and Germany, the author concludes there is no evidence in favor of either specific knowledge about other cultures or the general ability to manage intercultural situations (Graf, 2004). Thus, the question of the relative advantages of both approaches largely remains a gap in the research.
Research on leadership as well as scholarly works on adjacent issues has gathered a considerable amount of evidence relevant to team-building across cultures. Scholars have identified several challenges inherent to the process, mainly related to communication and learning in intercultural teams. These include disparity in language competencies, loss of meaning, insufficient mastery of non-verbal communication, different cultural orientations in terms of power distance, low learning motivation, and ambient cultural disharmony. Researchers have also identified positive factors for intercultural team-building, including multiple language proficiency, motivational and behavioral cultural intelligence, organizational learning culture. A near-universal agreement has been reached that the development of these is the responsibility of the leader, and two prominent approaches – namely, culture-specific and culture-general – have been identified as the way to proceed with it. However, there is no agreement on which, if any, of these approaches is superior to the other, and the empirical data on the matter remains scarce, which represents a gap in the research on team-building across cultures.
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