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: