Last week, I wrote about the benefits of multicultural top management teams when a company is operating in many countries. However, working such teams is challenging. People from different cultures behave in ways we often find perplexing, and suspending judgment on these differences is difficult.

Even something as simple as what is efficient is disputed in cross-cultural settings. For example, the Japanese spend a lot of time upfront in meetings getting to know one another before making any decision. In contrast, an American may see this as a waste of time and want to dive immediately into the task at hand. The Dutch I have found to be argumentative throughout meetings, but they are excellent at concluding with a resolution that is accepted by everyone.

When teaching participants drawn from a wide range of nationalities, one of my favorite exercises was a straightforward one. I would ask participants to imagine they are on a boat with their mother, spouse and child. Suddenly the boat starts sinking. None of the three can swim and you can rescue only one of them. Who would you save?

How it breaks down

This clear-cut thought experiment revealed how people think across different cultures and diverge in their fundamental assumptions.

  • Participants from the Middle East or China usually chose their mother. Their argument? “My mother gave me life and that is irreplaceable. By comparison, I can always have another spouse or child.”
  • Participants from the United States usually chose their spouse. Their reasoning: “My spouse is my partner for life. In contrast, my mother has already had a full life, and I can always have more children.”
  • Participants India and some European countries usually chose their child, the logic being that the child represents the future and has most of his or her life ahead. They often reassured me that, in any case, the mother and spouse would also wish them to save the child.

The point here is to demonstrate that there is no correct answer to the question. We must accept that there are multiple views of reality, and that they are culturally influenced. Of course, these are averages which differ across cultures, but everyone within a culture is not homogeneous.

When we talk of cultural differences, while there is variance across countries, this does not deny that there are differences within cultures. As an analogy, when we say Americans are taller than Indians, it does not mean that every American is taller than every Indian. Rather, Americans and Indians differ, on average, in height.

What it takes

In the face of cultural differences, working in multinational teams requires:

  1. Seeing differences as a source of curiosity rather than contempt. Trying to understand why others see things so differently? What in their history or environment explains this? With such an attitude, it becomes a fascinating journey of boundless discoveries and of reaching mutual understanding.
  2. Companies that have a long history of employing people from diverse cultures tend to develop organisational norms that supersede idiosyncratic cultural differences. These organisational norms – for instance, one conversation at a time – are expected to be followed, and are either culturally neutral or negotiated. I recall once being in a meeting involving Italians and the Dutch. After a frustrating day, it was agreed that during the following meeting the Italians would not use their mobiles, while the Dutch promised to let the lunch be arranged by the Italians. If you are in for a business meeting with the Dutch, expect a sandwich and a glass of milk for lunch. By comparison, even in the Flemish part of Belgium (as close to Dutch as you can get), the lunch can stretch to two hours. Yes, perplexing is the word.
  3. When working across cultures, expect your assumptions to be challenged. I remember teaching sales-force management to some Swedes. I was taken aback when they argued that giving them an incentive for sales implied that they would not put in their best efforts in the absence of incentives. They thought an incentive plan meant the company did not trust them! How you motivate people differs substantially across cultures.
  4. Lastly, when working in cross-cultural teams, accept some inefficiency as functional. It is impossible for the team to progress as a unit without the time spent understanding one another and their differences. The norming part after the forming and storming will take longer than with mono-cultural teams. But once this is done there will be a higher level of performing. The team will be more creative as it looks at the problem and the solution from multiple lenses.

Nirmalya Kumar is Member-Group Executive Council at Tata Sons and Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School. His Twitter handle is @ProfKumar. This article is written in his personal capacity.