Innovation is a must to be successful and stay relevant in any business and there is plenty of research supporting the claim that having a multicultural team boosts both creativity and promotes problem-solving. And it makes sense, a diverse team naturally has more points of view and experiences. However, a diverse team can only function well if the team members have an understanding of how to communicate with each other — false assumptions and conflicting norms can derail a multicultural team and become a barrier to team effectiveness. Simply having a multicultural team does not automatically mean having a creative, or creatively successful, team.

Sujin Jang (Assistant professor of organizational psychology at INSEAD) has studied the subject of multicultural teams and she asks the following question: “How do multicultural teams leverage diverse knowledge, ideas, and resources to generate creative outcomes while avoiding the pitfalls of cultural diversity?” The short answer is “cultural brokerage”.

Understanding the concept of cultural brokerage can be an important tool in evaluating and fine-tuning how multicultural teams within a given organization function. Jang defines cultural brokerage as “the act of facilitating interactions between actors across cultural boundaries”. In practical terms, this means taking stock of who is facilitating information exchange in a group and how that information flows within the group, as well as within the organization.

Jang conducted two studies, one using archival data and the other experimental data. The basic findings were that having multicultural team members can significantly enhance team creative performance, but that a multicultural team is not inherently more creative.

One of the challenges when working across cultural boundaries is identifying relevant information and communicating it between different groups. This is where facilitators are needed, and according to Jang, there are two types of facilitators: cultural insiders and cultural outsiders. Both play an important role — by improving team processes and by their ability to enhance team dynamics.

Jang introduces the concept of cultural overlap to explain how cultural insiders and cultural outsiders go about facilitating communication within a group. Cultural insiders have direct insights into the cultures they are bridging, whereas the cultural outsider has multicultural experience, but it’s not directly represented on the team. The two types of brokers work differently in bridging gaps on the team. The insider brokers by integrating his or her own knowledge from the different cultures, whereas the cultural outsider brokers by eliciting knowledge from the other team members by asking questions. In both cases, the communication flow is opened, making collaboration easier and innovation more likely.

In her study, Jang points out that she suspects that the idea of cultural brokerage extends beyond national culture dynamics to include gender, race and even diversity in work roles. And, as mentioned before, there are a variety of studies that point to the benefits of having diverse teams, such as a 2015 McKinsey study which reports that companies in the top quartile for ethnic and racial diversity in management were 35% more likely to have returns above their industry medians. The same study concluded that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity are 15% more likely to have higher financial returns than their industry medians. All the while, companies in the bottom quartile are less likely to achieve above-average financial returns.

Most organizations have work to do if they want to take full advantage of the benefits that multicultural teams can bring and in an increasingly global business world, the importance of multicultural team dynamics should not be underestimated.

By: Felicia Shermis



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