Culture, defined broadly, refers to ways of thinking that are characteristic of a group of people with similar backgrounds. These ways of thinking can be common to ethnic groups, genders, nationalities and even professions. A diversity of points of view offers a multicultural team a multi-dimensional approach to problem-solving that can produce superior results. Nevertheless, the diversity that distinguishes multicultural teams can also act as a weakness by inhibiting group cohesion and sparking internal disputes.
Ethnic, racial, gender and even professional stereotypes can cause misunderstandings and hostility in a multicultural setting. Many cultural stereotypes are unconsciously held, meaning that even good intentions cannot overcome them alone. The victim of an unconscious stereotype such as "mathematicians have poor social skills" may not realize that the stereotype is held unconsciously, and may react with hostility and the presumption that the other person is bigoted.
The larger a team is the greater the risk that it will break down into factions, even if the team is heterogeneous. Multicultural teams may break down into factions based on shared cultural values, and these factions may become antagonistic to each other. Cultural factionalism can be deceptively difficult to spot -- accountants from different countries, for example, may have more in common with each other than they do with engineers from their own country.
Communication styles differ among cultures. Lawyers, for example, are, as a group, far more comfortable with a confrontational style of communication than most other groups. By contrast, many people from Asian cultures view confrontational communication as inherently disrespectful. Someone from a non-confrontational culture may be reluctant to point out errors made by a superior or even an equal, while the person whose error was overlooked may consider it negligent not to have pointed it out immediately. A professor of literature may be comfortable with the use of analogy to express an unfamiliar idea, while a scientist may wonder when he will "get to the point."
Once the internal cohesion of a multicultural group begins to decline, offense may be taken, tempers may flare and a cycle of retribution and counter-retribution may begin. This is particularly likely if the team has already broken into factions. At this point, the focus of the team turns from the problem it was trying to solve to the power relations and egos of its members, sometimes resulting in complete disintegration. By the time this dynamic takes hold, it may be too late to salvage the team as an effective problem-solving entity.
David Carnes has been a full-time writer since 1998 and has published two full-length novels. He spends much of his time in various Asian countries and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. He earned a Juris Doctorate from the University of Kentucky College of Law.