Diversity is a given in international teams, with employees of different genders, nationalities, tenure and ages working together in various geographic locations.
The ongoing dilemma, however, is that these teams often don’t communicate well.
Seeking a better understanding, researchers from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business surveyed more than 2,000 members of about 289 teams that worked globally for a large multinational company with more than 100,000 workers.
Findings from the study show that geographic differences and working in different parts of the company’s structure really seemed to have the greatest impact as those factors prevented people from going to others to ask for help with work-related issues.
This surprised Wharton management professor Martine Haas, who says that while different nationalities and geographic distances often are viewed as barriers to better communication, structural barriers within an organization was unexpected.
“We know that when people on one team speak different languages, it’s a big deal. Managers tend to focus on some of the most obvious things that are really salient when you’re internationally dispersed,” she says. “But the structural stuff, for example, which we found to be surprisingly important, we don’t think about as much in a global team.”
She also explains that while nationality differences do matter, they aren’t as important as the actual physical distance between workers.
“If we’re in the same country and we’re different nationalities it’s actually not a very big deal. If we’re in different countries — even if we’re the same nationality — that’s a big deal,” she says.
Haas and co-author Jonathan Cummings of Duke say there are a several key takeaways for those managing multinational teams:
- Familiarity breeds success. The research shows that it can pay off if managers try to craft teams that may already know each other somewhat. In other words, if people have worked together before, they’re better able to overcome any obstacles, such as the organization’s structure or geographic distances.
- Try to minimize the most significant barriers. While managers may believe forming teams with different nationalities might prove challenging, that’s not necessarily enough to derail a team. It’s the physical distance and differences in various business units or divisions that may be the biggest impediment, so managers need to look for ways to improve knowledge sharing in these instances.
- Expand your thinking. Managers may latch on to obvious communication problems such as different time zones or languages and put their energies into solving those issues. But Haas points out the “most surprising” finding was how much knowledge sharing was impeded by an organization’s own setup. Leaders of multinational teams must be alert for a variety of problems that can crop up for multinational teams, so they can work to improve them instead of just relying on a cookie-cutter approach.