84 harvard business review | hbr.org
When a major international software developerneeded to produce a new product quickly, the project
manager assembled a team of employees from India and
the United States. From the start the team members
could not agree on a delivery date for the product. The
Americans thought the work could be done in two to
three weeks; the Indians predicted it would take two
to three months. As time went on, the Indian team mem-
bers proved reluctant to report setbacks in the production
process, which the American team members would find
out about only when work was due to be passed to them.
Such conflicts, of course, may affect any team, but in this
case they arose from cultural differences. As tensions
mounted, conflict over delivery dates and feedback be-
came personal, disrupting team members’ communica-
tion about even mundane issues. The project manager
decided he had to intervene–with the result that both the
American and the Indian team members came to rely on
him for direction regarding minute operational details
Teams whose members come fromdifferent nations and backgrounds place special demands on managers –especially when a feuding team looks to the boss for help with a conflict.
by Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar, and Mary C. Kern


Managing Multicultural Teams
that the team should have been able to handle itself. The
manager became so bogged down by quotidian issues
that the project careened hopelessly off even the most
pessimistic schedule–and the team never learned to work
together effectively.
Multicultural teams often generate frustrating manage-
ment dilemmas.Cultural differences can create substantial
obstacles to effective teamwork–but these may be subtle
and difficult to recognize until significant damage has al-
ready been done. As in the case above, which the manager
involved told us about, managers may create more prob-
lems than they resolve by intervening. The challenge in
managing multicultural teams effectively is to recognize
underlying cultural causes of conflict, and to intervene in
ways that both get the team back on track and empower
its members to deal with future challenges themselves.
We interviewed managers and members of multicul-
tural teams from all over the world. These interviews,
combined with our deep research on dispute resolution
and teamwork, led us to conclude that the wrong kind of
managerial intervention may sideline valuable members
who should be participating or, worse, create resistance,
resulting in poor team performance. We’re not talking
here about respecting differing national standards for
doing business, such as accounting practices. We’re refer-
ring to day-to-day working problems among team mem-
bers that can keep multicultural teams from realizing
the very gains they were set up to harvest, such as knowl-
edge of different product markets, culturally sensitive
customer service, and 24-hour work rotations.
The good news is that cultural challenges are manage-
able if managers and team members choose the right
strategy and avoid imposing single-culture-based ap-
proaches on multicultural situations.
The Challenges People tend to assume that challenges on multicultural
teams arise from differing styles of communication. But
this is only one of the four categories that, according to
our research, can create barriers to a team’s ultimate suc-
cess. These categories are direct versus indirect communi-
cation; trouble with accents and fluency; differing atti-
tudes toward hierarchy and authority; and conflicting
norms for decision making.
Direct versus indirect communication. Communica-
tion in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit.
The meaning is on the surface, and a listener doesn’t have
to know much about the context or the speaker to inter-
pret it. This is not true in many other cultures, where
meaning is embedded in the way the message is pre-
sented. For example, Western negotiators get crucial in-
formation about the other party’s preferences and pri-
orities by asking direct questions, such as “Do you prefer
option A or option B?” In cultures that use indirect com-
munication, negotiators may have to infer preferences
and priorities from changes – or the lack of them – in the
other party’s settlement proposal. In cross-cultural nego-
tiations, the non-Westerner can understand the direct
communications of the Westerner, but the Westerner
has difficulty understanding the indirect communications
of the non-Westerner.
An American manager who was leading a project to
build an interface for a U.S. and Japanese customer-data
system explained the problems her team was having this
way: “In Japan, they want to talk and discuss. Then we
take a break and they talk within the organization. They
want to make sure that there’s harmony in the rest of
the organization. One of the hardest lessons for me was
when I thought they were saying yes but they just meant
‘I’m listening to you.’”
The differences between direct and indirect communi-
cation can cause serious damage to relationships when
team projects run into problems. When the American
manager quoted above discovered that several flaws in
the system would significantly disrupt company opera-
tions, she pointed this out in an e-mail to her American
boss and the Japanese team members. Her boss appreci-
ated the direct warnings; her Japanese colleagues were
embarrassed, because she had violated their norms for
uncovering and discussing problems. Their reaction was
to provide her with less access to the people and informa-
tion she needed to monitor progress. They would proba-
bly have responded better if she had pointed out the
problems indirectly – for example, by asking them what
would happen if a certain part of the system was not func-
tioning properly, even though she knew full well that it
was malfunctioning and also what the implications were.
As our research indicates is so often true, communi-
cation challenges create barriers to effective teamwork
by reducing information sharing, creating interpersonal
conflict, or both. In Japan, a typical response to direct con-
frontation is to isolate the norm violator. This American
manager was isolated not just socially but also physically.
She told us, “They literally put my office in a storage
room, where I had desks stacked from floor to ceiling and
I was the only person there. So they totally isolated me,
which was a pretty loud signal to me that I was not a part
of the inside circle and that they would communicate
with me only as needed.”
86 harvard business review | hbr.org
Jeanne Brett is the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations and the direc-
tor of the Dispute Resolution Research Center at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illi-
nois. Kristin Behfar is an assistant professor at the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California at Irvine.
Mary C. Kern is an assistant professor at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College in New York.

Managing Multicultural Teams
Her direct approach had been intended to solve a prob-
lem, and in one sense, it did, because her project was
launched problem-free. But her norm violations exacer-
bated the challenges of working with her Japanese col-
leagues and limited her ability to uncover any other prob-
lems that might have derailed the project later on.
Trouble with accents and fluency. Although the lan-
guage of international business is English, misunderstand-
ings or deep frustration may occur because of nonnative
speakers’ accents, lack of fluency, or problems with trans-
lation or usage. These may also influence perceptions of
status or competence.
For example, a Latin American member of a multicul-
tural consulting team lamented, “Many times I felt that
because of the language difference, I didn’t have the
words to say some things that I was thinking. I noticed
that when I went to these interviews with the U.S. guy,
he would tend to lead the interviews, which was under-
standable but also disappointing, because we are at the
same level. I had very good questions, but he would take
the lead.”
When we interviewed an American member of a U.S.-
Japanese team that was assessing the potential expan-
sion of a U.S. retail chain into Japan, she described one
American teammate this way: “He was not interested in
the Japanese consultants’ feedback and felt that because
they weren’t as fluent as he was, they weren’t intelligent
enough and, therefore, could add no value.” The team
member described was responsible for assessing one as-
pect of the feasibility of expansion into Japan. Without
input from the Japanese experts, he risked overestimating
opportunities and underestimating challenges.
Nonfluent team members may well be the most expert
on the team, but their difficulty communicating knowl-
edge makes it hard for the team to recognize and utilize
their expertise. If teammates become frustrated or impa-
tient with a lack of fluency, interpersonal conflicts can
arise. Nonnative speakers may become less motivated to
contribute, or anxious about their performance evalua-
tions and future career prospects. The organization as a
whole pays a greater price: Its investment in a multicul-
tural team fails to pay off.
Some teams, we learned, use language differences to
resolve (rather than create) tensions. A team of U.S. and
Latin American buyers was negotiating with a team from
a Korean supplier. The negotiations took place in Korea,
but the discussions were conducted in English. Frequently
the Koreans would caucus at the table by speaking Ko-
rean. The buyers, frustrated, would respond by appearing
to caucus in Spanish – though they discussed only incon-
sequential current events and sports, in case any of the
Koreans spoke Spanish. Members of the team who didn’t
speak Spanish pretended to participate, to the great
amusement of their teammates. This approach proved ef-
fective: It conveyed to the Koreans in an appropriately
indirect way that their caucuses in Korean were frustrat-
ing and annoying to the other side. As a result, both teams
cut back on sidebar conversations.
Differing attitudes toward hierarchy and authority.A challenge inherent in multicultural teamwork is that
by design, teams have a rather flat structure. But team
members from some cultures, in which people are treated
differently according to their status in an organization,
are uncomfortable on flat teams. If they defer to higher-
status team members, their behavior will be seen as ap-
propriate when most of the team comes from a hierar-
chical culture; but they may damage their stature and
credibility – and even face humiliation – if most of the
team comes from an egalitarian culture.
One manager of Mexican heritage, who was working
on a credit and underwriting team for a bank, told us,“In
Mexican culture, you’re always supposed to be humble. So
whether you understand something or not, you’re sup-
posed to put it in the form of a question. You have to keep
it open-ended, out of respect. I think that actually worked
against me, because the Americans thought I really didn’t
know what I was talking about. So it made me feel like
they thought I was wavering on my answer.”
When, as a result of differing cultural norms, team
members believe they’ve been treated disrespectfully,
the whole project can blow up. In another Korean-U.S.
negotiation, the American members of a due diligence
team were having difficulty getting information from
their Korean counterparts, so they complained directly to
higher-level Korean management, nearly wrecking the
deal. The higher-level managers were offended because
hierarchy is strictly adhered to in Korean organizations
and culture. It should have been their own lower-level
people, not the U.S. team members, who came to them
with a problem. And the Korean team members were
mortified that their bosses had been involved before they
themselves could brief them. The crisis was resolved only
when high-level U.S. managers made a trip to Korea, con-
veying appropriate respect for their Korean counterparts.
november 2006 87
Communication in Western cultures is typically direct and explicit.In many other cultures, meaning is embedded in the way the message is presented. The differences can cause serious damage to team relationships.

manent or temporary? Does the team’s manager have the
autonomy to make a decision about changing the team in
some way? Once the situational conditions have been an-
alyzed, the team’s leader can identify an appropriate re-
sponse (see the exhibit “Identifying the Right Strategy”).
Adaptation. Some teams find ways to work with or
around the challenges they face, adapting practices or at-
titudes without making changes to the group’s mem-
bership or assignments. Adaptation works when team
members are willing to acknowledge and name their cul-
tural differences and to assume responsibility for figur-
ing out how to live with them. It’s often the best possible
approach to a problem, because it typically involves less
managerial time than other strategies; and because team
members participate in solving the problem themselves,
they learn from the process. When team members have
this mind-set, they can be creative about protecting their
own substantive differences while acceding to the pro-
cesses of others.
An American software engineer located in Ireland who
was working with an Israeli account management team
from his own company told us how shocked he was by the
Israelis’ in-your-face style: “There were definitely different
ways of approaching issues and discussing them. There is
something pretty common to the Israeli culture: They
like to argue. I tend to try to collaborate more, and it got
very stressful for me until I figured out how to kind of
merge the cultures.”
The software engineer adapted. He imposed some
structure on the Israelis that helped him maintain his
own style of being thoroughly prepared; that accommo-
dation enabled him to accept the Israeli style. He also no-
ticed that team members weren’t just confronting him;
they confronted one another but were able to work to-
gether effectively nevertheless. He realized that the con-
frontation was not personal but cultural.
In another example, an American member of a post-
merger consulting team was frustrated by the hierarchy
of the French company his team was working with. He
felt that a meeting with certain French managers who
were not directly involved in the merger “wouldn’t deliver
any value to me or for purposes of the project,” but said
that he had come to understand that “it was very impor-
tant to really involve all the people there” if the integra-
tion was ultimately to work.
A U.S. and UK multicultural team tried to use their dif-
fering approaches to decision making to reach a higher-
Conflicting norms for decision making. Cultures dif-
fer enormously when it comes to decision making–partic-
ularly, how quickly decisions should be made and how
much analysis is required beforehand. Not surprisingly,
U.S. managers like to make decisions very quickly and
with relatively little analysis by comparison with manag-
ers from other countries.
A Brazilian manager at an American company who
was negotiating to buy Korean products destined for
Latin America told us, “On the first day, we agreed on
three points, and on the second day, the U.S.-Spanish side
wanted to start with point four.But the Korean side wanted
to go back and rediscuss points one through three. My
boss almost had an attack.”
What U.S. team members learn from an experience like
this is that the American way simply cannot be imposed
on other cultures. Managers from other cultures may, for
example, decline to share information until they under-
stand the full scope of a project. But they have learned
that they can’t simply ignore the desire of their American
counterparts to make decisions quickly. What to do? The
best solution seems to be to make minor concessions on
process–to learn to adjust to and even respect another ap-
proach to decision making.For example,American manag-
ers have learned to keep their impatient bosses away from
team meetings and give them frequent if brief updates.
A comparable lesson for managers from other cultures is
to be explicit about what they need – saying, for example,
“We have to see the big picture before we talk details.”
Four StrategiesThe most successful teams and managers we interviewed
used four strategies for dealing with these challenges:
adaptation (acknowledging cultural gaps openly and
working around them), structural intervention (changing
the shape of the team), managerial intervention (setting
norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and
exit (removing a team member when other options have
failed). There is no one right way to deal with a particular
kind of multicultural problem; identifying the type of
challenge is only the first step. The more crucial step is
assessing the circumstances – or “enabling situational
conditions”–under which the team is working. For exam-
ple, does the project allow any flexibility for change, or do
deadlines make that impossible? Are there additional re-
sources available that might be tapped? Is the team per-
88 harvard business review | hbr.org
Managing Multicultural Teams
Team members who are uncomfortable on flat teams may,by deferring to higher-status teammates, damage their stature and credibility –and even face humiliation – if most of the team is from an egalitarian culture.

including the most unlikely, while the U.S. members
chomped at the bit and muttered about analysis paralysis.
The strength of this team was that some of its members
were willing to forge ahead and some were willing to
work through pitfalls. To accommodate them all, the
team did both–moving not quite as fast as the U.S. mem-
bers would have on their own and not quite as thor-
oughly as the UK members would have.
Structural intervention. A structural intervention is
a deliberate reorganization or reassignment designed to
reduce interpersonal friction or to remove a source of
conflict for one or more groups. This approach can be
quality decision. This approach, called fusion, is getting
serious attention from political scientists and from gov-
ernment officials dealing with multicultural populations
that want to protect their cultures rather than integrate
or assimilate. If the team had relied exclusively on the
Americans’“forge ahead”approach, it might not have rec-
ognized the pitfalls that lay ahead and might later have
had to back up and start over. Meanwhile, the UK mem-
bers would have been gritting their teeth and saying “We
told you things were moving too fast.” If the team had
used the “Let’s think about this” UK approach, it might
have wasted a lot of time trying to identify every pitfall,
Managing Multicultural Teams
november 2006 89
Identifying the Right StrategyThe most successful teams and managers we interviewed use four strategies for dealing with problems: adaptation
(acknowledging cultural gaps openly and working around them), structural intervention (changing the shape of the
team), managerial intervention (setting norms early or bringing in a higher-level manager), and exit (removing a team
member when other options have failed). Adaptation is the ideal strategy because the team works effectively to
solve its own problem with minimal input from management – and, most important, learns from the experience. The
guide below can help you identify the right strategy once you have identified both the problem and the “enabling
situational conditions” that apply to the team.
• Conflict arises from decision-
making differences
• Misunderstanding or stone-
walling arises from commu-
nication differences
• The team is affected by emo-
tional tensions relating to flu-
ency issues or prejudice
• Team members are inhibited
by perceived status differ-
ences among teammates
• Violations of hierarchy have
resulted in loss of face
• An absence of ground rules
is causing conflict
• A team member cannot ad-
just to the challenge at hand
and has become unable to
contribute to the project
• Team members can attribute a
challenge to culture rather than
• Higher-level managers are not
available or the team would be
embarrassed to involve them
• The team can be subdivided
to mix cultures or expertise
• Tasks can be subdivided
• The problem has produced
a high level of emotion
• The team has reached
a stalemate
• A higher-level manager is able
and willing to intervene
• The team is permanent rather
than temporary
• Emotions are beyond the point
of intervention
• Too much face has been lost
• Team members must
be exceptionally aware
• Negotiating a common
understanding takes
• If team members aren’t
carefully distributed, sub-
groups can strengthen
preexisting differences
• Subgroup solutions
have to fit back together
• The team becomes
overly dependent
on the manager
• Team members may
be sidelined or resistant
• Talent and training
costs are lost

Managing Multicultural Teams
extremely effective when obvious subgroups demarcate
the team (for example, headquarters versus national
subsidiaries) or if team members are proud, defensive,
threatened, or clinging to negative stereotypes of one
A member of an investment research team scattered
across continental Europe, the UK, and the U.S. described
for us how his manager resolved conflicts stemming from
status differences and language tensions among the
team’s three “tribes.” The manager started by having
the team meet face-to-face twice a year, not to discuss
mundane day-to-day problems (of which there were
many) but to identify a set of values that the team would
use to direct and evaluate its progress. At the first meet-
ing, he realized that when he started to speak, everyone
else “shut down,”waiting to hear what he had to say. So he
hired a consultant to run future meetings. The consultant
didn’t represent a hierarchical threat and was therefore
able to get lots of participation from team members.
Another structural intervention might be to create
smaller working groups of mixed cultures or mixed corpo-
rate identities in order to get at information that is not
forthcoming from the team as a whole. The manager of
the team that was evaluating retail opportunities in Japan
used this approach. When she realized that the female
Japanese consultants would not participate if the group
got large, or if their male superior was present, she broke
the team up into smaller groups to try to solve problems.
She used this technique repeatedly and made a point of
changing the subgroups’ membership each time so that
team members got to know and respect everyone else on
the team.
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 an-
other. Sooner or later the team will have to assemble the
pieces that the subgroups have come up with, so this ap-
proach relies on another structural intervention: Some-
one must become a mediator in order to see that the var-
ious pieces fit together.
Managerial intervention. When a manager behaves
like an arbitrator or a judge, making a final decision with-
out 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.
When an American refinery-safety expert with
significant experience throughout East Asia got
stymied during a project in China, she called in
her company’s higher-level managers in Beijing
to talk to the higher-level managers to whom the
Chinese refinery’s managers reported. Unlike
the Western team members who breached eti-
quette by approaching the superiors of their Ko-
rean counterparts, the safety expert made sure
to respect hierarchies in both organizations.
“Trying to resolve the issues,” she told us,“the
local management at the Chinese refinery would
end up having conferences with our Beijing of-
fice and also with the upper management within
the refinery. Eventually they understood that we
weren’t trying to insult them or their culture or
to tell them they were bad in any way. We were
trying to help. They eventually understood that
there were significant fire and safety issues. But
we actually had to go up some levels of manage-
ment to get those resolved.”
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 mem-
bers, though they spoke grammatically correct
English, had a very pronounced accent. In setting
the ground rules for the team, the manager ad-
dressed the challenge directly, telling the mem-
bers that they had been chosen for their task ex-
pertise, not their fluency in English, and that the
90 harvard business review | hbr.org

Managing Multicultural Teams
team was going to have to work around language prob-
lems. As the project moved to the customer-services train-
ing stage, the manager advised the team members to ac-
knowledge their accents up front. She said they should
tell customers,“I realize I have an accent. If you don’t un-
derstand what I’m saying, just stop me and ask questions.”
Exit. 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 voluntar-
ily 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.
An American member of a multicultural consulting
team described the conflict between two senior consul-
tants, one a Greek woman and the other a Polish man,
over how to approach problems: “The woman from
Greece would say, ‘Here’s the way I think we should do it.’
It would be something that she was in control of. The
guy from Poland would say,‘I think we should actually do
it this way instead.’ The woman would kind of turn red
in the face, upset, and say, ‘I just don’t think that’s the
right way of doing it.’ It would definitely switch from just
professional differences to personal differences.
“The woman from Greece ended up leaving the firm.
That was a direct result of probably all the different issues
going on between these people. It really just wasn’t a
good fit. I’ve found that oftentimes when you’re in con-
sulting, you have to adapt to the culture, obviously, but
you have to adapt just as much to the style of whoever is
leading the project.”
• • •
Though multicultural teams face challenges that are not
directly attributable to cultural differences, such differ-
ences underlay whatever problem needed to be addressed
in many of the teams we studied. Furthermore, while se-
rious in their own right when they have a negative effect
on team functioning, cultural challenges may also unmask
fundamental managerial problems. Managers who inter-
vene early and set norms; teams and managers who struc-
ture social interaction and work to engage everyone on
the team; and teams that can see problems as stemming
from culture, not personality, approach challenges with
good humor and creativity. Managers who have to inter-
vene when the team has reached a stalemate may be able
to get the team moving again, but they seldom empower
it to help itself the next time a stalemate occurs.
When frustrated team members take some time to think
through challenges and possible solutions themselves, it
can make a huge difference. Take, for example, this story
about a financial-services call center. The members of the
call-center team were all fluent Spanish-speakers, but some
were North Americans and some were Latin Americans.
Team performance, measured by calls answered per hour,
was lagging. One Latin American was taking twice as
long with her calls as the rest of the team. She was han-
dling callers’ questions appropriately, but she was also
engaging in chitchat. When her teammates confronted
her for being a free rider (they resented having to make
up for her low call rate), she immediately acknowledged
the problem, admitting that she did not know how to
end the call politely – chitchat being normal in her cul-
ture. They rallied to help her: Using their technology, they
would break into any of her calls that went overtime, ex-
cusing themselves to the customer, offering to take over
the call, and saying that this employee was urgently
needed to help out on a different call. The team’s solution
worked in the short run, and the employee got better at
ending her calls in the long run.
In another case, the Indian manager of a multicultural
team coordinating a companywide IT project found him-
self frustrated when he and a teammate from Singapore
met with two Japanese members of the coordinating
team to try to get the Japan section to deliver its part of
the project. The Japanese members seemed to be saying
yes, but in the Indian manager’s view, their follow-
through was insufficient. He considered and rejected the
idea of going up the hierarchy to the Japanese team mem-
bers’ boss, and decided instead to try to build consensus
with the whole Japanese IT team, not just the two mem-
bers on the coordinating team. He and his Singapore
teammate put together an eBusiness road show, took it to
Japan, invited the whole IT team to view it at a lunch
meeting, and walked through success stories about other
parts of the organization that had aligned with the com-
pany’s larger business priorities. It was rather subtle, he
told us, but it worked. The Japanese IT team wanted to be
spotlighted in future eBusiness road shows. In the end,
the whole team worked well together – and no higher-
level manager had to get involved.
Reprint R0611D
To order, see page 159.
november 2006 91
One team manager addressed the language challenge directly,telling the members that they had been chosen for their task expertise, not theirfluency in English, and that the team would have to work around problems.

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