Understanding Cultural Differences – Implications for Teams at Work

Understanding Cultural Differences – Implications for Teams at Work

By Aoife Harrington, July 2010

With the globalisation of the economy and the diversification of the labour market, more and more organisations are relying on multi-cultural teams (MCT). Although MCTs often produce more creative solutions and better quality decisions, they can also bring with them complex group dynamics, unique communication issues and a greater potential for interpersonal conflict.

In order to better understand cultural differences, this article will draw primarily on Hofstede’s (1980) Model of Culture – based on data from over 100,000 people in 40 countries.

In brief, Hofstede proposed that there are 5 main dimensions on which cultures can vary;


  • Power Distance – the degree to which less powerful members of institutions and organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally
  • Uncertainty Avoidance – the degree of tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty
  • Individualism – the extent to which individuals are integrated into groups and how people define themselves apart from their group membership
  • Masculinity– the value placed on traditionally male versus female values in society
  • Long-Term Orientation – the degree to which a society embraces long term devotion to tradition and commitment and also their degree of receptivity to change


Some key cultural differences will now be outlined and the implications for MCTs at work will be discussed.


  • Agreeing on Task and Process Strategies:

Like all teams at work, MCTs need to arrive at a common approach to working together. Reaching an agreement from the outset on how meetings will be conducted and what conduct is appropriate during meetings is particularly important in MCTs. In high uncertainty avoidance cultures, setting agendas is essential as they bring a sense of predictability and structure to meetings.  For cultures with low uncertainty avoidance, however, meeting agendas and sticking to them rigidly can be seen as repressive and potentially stifling creativity.


  • Goal Setting:

Cultural differences will play a key role in how goals are set and what these goals entail. Some cultures would interpret the very act of goal setting as task-orientated and insensitive to the needs of the social group. As such, time should be dedicated to establishing a sense of rapport between team members before any goals are set. Different approaches to time will also have an impact on how and when goals are set – depending on whether time is viewed as monochromic or polychromic.


  • Assigning Roles and Responsibilities:

Choosing who does what and who will take the lead can be problematic in MCTs. Who is chosen as the team’s leader and what their responsibilities are is an important decision that the team must make. Cultures can differ significantly in the degree to which the leader is seen as a facilitator versus a decision maker and also the extent to which the team leader can be challenged.


  • Choosing How to Communicate:

The first step in communication is to choose the working language for the MCT. In order to facilitate communication, members should be encouraged to speak slowly and to try to express their view points in alternative ways. Particularly in times of emotional conflict, communication can become even more difficult within MCTs. Translating feelings into words can be very difficult when people are upset and often people do not know equivalent words for emotions across cultures which can lead to misunderstandings.


  • Virtual Communication:

As MCTs are often dispersed both temporally and geographically, virtual communication has become a necessity in organisational life. However, by their very nature, online environments tend to be task-focused and restrict social interaction.  In order to create a greater sense of purpose in the virtual MCT, high quality audio and visual technology, that absorbs team members into the scene, should be used.


  • Decision Making:

How decisions as reached and implemented can differ from one culture to the next, with some cultures seeking consensus, others favouring majority rule and others still looking to power distance, seniority and longevity.


  • Evaluating Performance & Allocating Rewards:

Performance appraisal can be a potential cultural minefield. Appraisal systems, by their very nature, tend to assume that goals can be set and reached and, therefore, that people and time can be managed so to achieve those goals. The allocation of rewards is an equally sensitive issue in MCTs that needs to be handled with care – particularly when people from collectivist and individualistic cultures are members of the same team.


  • Conflict Resolution:

It is essential that ways of managing conflict in MCTs are agreed upon in advance, because the way in which conflict is managed can vary significantly form one culture to the next, depending on whether value is placed on maintaining harmonious relationships versus more masculine values like drive and determination to succeed.


In conclusion, MCTs are inherent in organisational life and businesses need to embrace and take advantage of cultural diversity. This involves identifying and discussing differences and not just ignoring them and hoping that they will go away. Most importantly, as boundaries between nations become increasingly blurred, developing a more general cultural awareness and being receptive to cues of cultural differences will allow MCT members to work together to their best effect.


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Aoife Harrington is a Registered Work and Organisational Psychologist at DavittCorporatePartners – Corporate Psychologists