Operations Organizations Strategy Leadership Jul 1, 2008

Cul­tur­al Intel­li­gence in Glob­al Teams

A fusion mod­el of collaboration

Based on the research of

Maddy Janssens

Jeanne M. Brett

Listening: Interview with Jeanne Brett


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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. 

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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.”

Fusion col­lab­o­ra­tion is based on two fun­da­men­tal ele­ments of col­lab­o­ra­tion: coex­is­tence of dif­fer­ences and mean­ing­ful participation.”

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.

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.

Featured Faculty

Jeanne M. Brett

DeWitt W. Buchanan, Jr., Professor of Dispute Resolution and Organizations; Professor of Management & Organizations

About the Writer

Peter Gwynne, a freelance writer based in Sandwich, Massachusetts

About the Research

Janssens, Maddy and Jeanne M. Brett (2006). “Cultural Intelligence in global teams: A fusion model of collaboration,” Groups & Organization Management , 31(1), 124-150.

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