globalEDGE Blog: gE Blog Series: The Cultural Difference Part 4 - Confrontation in Multicultural Teams

gE Blog Series: The Cultural Difference Part 4 - Confrontation in Multicultural Teams

On almost any business team, confrontation is something that is part of every meeting. It is a way to get ideas out on the table, and usher in new innovative solutions. Even at the university level, students are taught how to confront peers in correct ways, to empower team members and not scare them off. However, in the context of a team made up of multiple cultures, this typical American stance on confrontation could be viewed as downright rude and inconsiderate.

In many Asian cultures, confrontation is considered rude, aggressive and disrespectful. It is usually avoided all together. The overarching factor that plays a crucial role is culture. We can see this through the power distance index. In Asia, most countries rank very high on the Hofstede Power Distance Index (around 90-100), whereas the United States ranks right in the middle to low (40). This affects who should initiate confrontation and how one should confront a superior or an inferior.

A recent statistic was published that stated 65% of randomly selected participants from multinational organizations had more than half of their team members outside of their home country. Mono-culture teams are now a thing of the past and it’s a good idea to learn how to handle other cultural views on confrontation. With the rise of international students at universities around the country, the current generation of students has a leg up on their predecessors. In many business classes at Michigan State University, team projects are a core part of the curriculum and working with international students helps teach this critical cultural adaption skill.

If you weren’t as lucky to have this learning experience early on, some of the best ways to deal with confrontation with multinational teams are as follows:

  1. Preparation and Research – It seems obvious, but is often overlooked. The amount of data out there about cultural differences is staggering. globalEDGE has a whole section dedicated to it – Here
  2. Choice of Words – Making people comfortable is very important when getting them to express their opinions in front of a group. Instead of saying “I disagree with your point” try saying “I don’t quite understand your point,” or “could you expand on that more?”
  3. Anonymous Confrontation – Instead of having people confront others during the meeting, have them e-mail a third party with criticisms to ideas that have been discussed. During the meeting, bring out all the ideas and criticisms, that way nobody knows who’s suggestion it was.

What are some of your ways of handling confrontation with multicultural teams? I’m sure there are many more.

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