Modern organizations operate in a thoroughly global environment. Not only do they buy and sell goods and services in several national markets, but they also hire individuals from a variety of cultures. As a result, culturally heterogeneous teams frequently determine strategy, undertake planning, carry out research, and perform other complex tasks for organizations. Team members with diverse cultural and functional backgrounds inevitably differ in their assumptions about decision-making and even in their preconceptions of teamwork. Some evidence indicates that traditional models of multicultural collaboration fail to draw most effectively on individual team members’ skills and experiences.

A New Principle for Teamwork
Jeanne Brett, the DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations in the Kellogg School, and Maddy Janssens of Belgium’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven have developed an alternative approach. They call it fusion because of its resemblance to fusion cooking. This culinary method combines or substitutes ingredients or cooking techniques from different cultural traditions while preserving their distinct flavors, textures, and presentations. Brett applies this principal to teamwork when she explains, “Fusion is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation. “Fusion, she adds, “is an entirely new concept in the literature. It is not intuitive, because it is complex.”

Multicultural teams have an obvious advantage over homogeneous teams: divergent thinking. Just as two heads are better than one, so two or more cultural perspectives should lead to more creative decisions and solutions. “While homogeneous teams are good at reproducing solutions,” Brett asserts, “heterogeneous teams are appropriate for solving new, complex problems.”

But gaps can exist between theory and practice, and great strengths can also be great weaknesses. Observing the challenges that divergent thinking can bring to the table, Brett and her colleague sought to develop a new paradigm that would enable multicultural teams to maximize their potential. “We were interested in how to make multicultural teams more effective, because we had seen teams operating with a subgroup dominant model,” Brett explains. “We saw how that model shut out certain members of the team who had contributions to make.”

“Fusion collaboration is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation.”Most multicultural teams collaborate in one of two ways. In the dominant (or subgroup) coalition model, a coalition of team members directs the extraction of information and the team’s decision making. A dominant coalition does not necessarily consist of a majority of the team’s members—it might be a minority group or even a single person. But whatever its constitution, it has power.

“[A] dominant coalition sets the scene, overrides differences that are not in line with its logic, and suppresses other perspectives,” Brett and Janssens write in Group & Organization Management. “This creates a less culturally intelligent team model because it discourages meaningful participation in information extraction and decision making.”

Alternatively, the integration and/or identity model requires team members to sublimate the identity of their own cultural groups to that of the entire team. They do so by adopting “superordinate goals” based on the common interests of team members. This process gives the team’s entire membership broader access to information and decision making than the dominant coalition model. However, it carries two specific risks that might reduce its capabilities. Members might yield some of their cultural identity—and hence their tendency to think differently—in the interests of unity. Also, in order to maintain inclusivity, the team might function at the level of its least productive member. This lowest common denominator philosophy can dilute contributions from the most productive members.

A Fusion of Coexistence and Participation
Brett and Janssens rely on two influences to develop a different, more effective approach. The first is the political concept of pluralistic democracy that allows for the coexistence of differences among team members; the second is fusion cooking. “Fusion cooking is a method that relies on combining different styles of cooking and cooking ingredients in such a way that the elements remain identifiable, but their juxtaposition is unique,” Brett explains. In similar fashion, the fusion approach to teamwork aims to obtain contributions from individual team members whenever those members’ understanding or expertise is relevant to the team’s goal. “Fusion collaboration is based on two fundamental elements of collaboration: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation,” Brett summarizes.

How can teams ensure meaningful participation of members with the appropriate knowledge at the appropriate time? “One of the ways to get people to participate is to make the size of the groups smaller, and to seed each small group with someone who is likely to support the team member who has not been participating,” Brett says. To maintain its creativity as its tasks change, the team should continually reconstitute the subgroups. And whenever disagreements occur, as they inevitably will, Brett and Janssens suggest that members take a vote. That approach, they write, “preserves differences and gets decisions made.”

But how does the fusion model fare if one cultural group consistently wins the votes and exerts its power in other ways? The two researchers assert that the team leader should undertake formal interventions to balance the power equation. Such interventions might aim to manage the team’s time better. They might encourage more questioning among team members. Alternatively, the leader might appoint individuals or subgroups to work on a particular problem independently and then share their solutions with the entire team.

When Brett and Janssens first developed their concept, they did not know of any teams that used a fusion collaboration approach. “Subsequent studies,” Brett says, “provide evidence that the fusion collaboration exists and that it is related to creativity, especially when a team has a majority of Western culture members.” So managers and leaders now have a practical, proven approach to consider when they determine how their teams will attack the issues that confront them.