Multicultural learning in business has been a mainstay in management education for the last twenty years as more and more universities in the UK and elsewhere seek to prepare students for management roles in corporations with extremely diverse makeup. The standards accepted, as well as the theory surrounding such standards are applicable to not only management training but group dynamics regarding course work. My particular group work is no exception, and has reflected a multicultural dynamic that was reflective of not only two cultures, but three as my history as a student from Brazil is highly weighted by many years spent in the U.S. In the group work assigned I experienced cultural diversity, and shared a research project assignment with three international students from India, who according to Hofstede should correspond to my style as a Brazilian. What I found was that my base culture was not as reflective as I had assumed it would be, as many of my formative years of education and upbringing were influenced by the cultural standards of the U.S. In short what I found was that the power distance concept was reflected differently and more telling the individualism concepts weighed heavily on group dynamics.
A acted as the ‘project manager’ for this project and our project revolved around HP (Hewlett & Packard). As one can see from the country graphs above Geert Hofstede (www.geert-hofstede.com” power distance” concepts differences such as the 3 students from India were very much awaiting for order to follow while I was waiting for them to be creative and take some action/initiative. Where Brazil and India rank nearly the same on the Hofstede PDI, which indicates there is a significant distance between those in power and those not in power, culminating in a hierarchical distribution, where subordinates expect to be told what to do and then do it. While the U.S., again as one can see from the U.S. Hofstede graph, above, has a much lower PDI reflecting that many individuals culturally assume an open door between those in power and those in subordinate roles, and therefore respond by developing independent ideas that are then communicated to the power base and the group.
Additionally, Brazil and India show a moderate level of individualism while the U.S. boasts the trait as the highest. It is for this reason that I believe I saw limited individual initiative, something I had expected from the other group members. The group of three other members seemed to have the desire to work collectively, rather than individually and meet frequently to discuss and work together. While I as the project manager assumed that most, as I did would desire to work independently and communicate via telephone and email about the project. This assumption may have created an unexpected obstacle, which I more than they had to overcome to complete the project. At each meeting, I assumed that each individual student would be contributing a significant portion of the project materials, and what I found was that what I thought would be relatively minor instructions, stopped progress and resulted in the other group members seeking to wait for my detailed instructions to complete project aspects.
Short of stereotyping the individuals in the group or even myself, a concept stressed by Bing, in his article regarding the impact and consequences of Hofstede’s work one must take from the experience a reflective idea of the manner in which this small group interacted. (Bing, 2004 p.82) in the future I will attempt to demand of myself, as a group leader and/or member the reflection of how cultural issues might impact my ability to work collectively. I was previously unaware of my tendency, like many others to assume that others will respond to work tasks and group dynamics as I would. This insight is demonstrative of the fact that I assumed the other members would be more responsive to the opportunity for individual contributions, when what they really needed was to be told to work independently or worse case scenario given detailed instructions that would reflect their role in the process. Had I been less resistant to group meetings early on, I may have recognized the problem and corrected for it. In the future, for the sake of productivity, I must be aware of the fact that some people, by virtue of culture expect a leader to give concrete instructions and either provide such or try to engender a change that is inclusive of an open door, for live meetings and flexibility for group work. If the conflicts had been more extreme there may have been a total breakdown, with the other three students assuming I did not care about the project, because I did not provide detailed instructions or because I was resistant to live group work, and myself believing that the other members of the group did not care about the project because they simply did not provide enough original individualized work. Though I would not wish to engage in “predicting individual cultural preferences” there is a clear sense that had I not assumed my own leanings would be more reflective of my Brazilian culture than my U.S. experiences the group work may have been more effective. (Bing, 2004 p.81) in fact it would be safe to say that in the future, when I compare myself culturally to others I would be more likely to look toward my U.S. culture base than my Brazilian cultural history. One particular situation that demonstrated incong4ruency with the Hofstede theory is that India and the U.S. have similar Uncertainty Avoidance Indexes, and yet the three Indian students seemed particularly unable to function inside an ambiguous situation, undefined by the group leader. It also reflects the fact that unknown to me my level of UAI was again reflective of my U.S. culture, rather than that of Brazil, which has a comparatively high UAI.
The group was also made up of members who had not previously been friends and yet the cohesion of the Indian students was reflected almost immediately and my role as group leader, being from a different culture(s) seemed to be by default. Tomlinson and Egan discuss the issues that could influence group and task work, with regard to open diversity awareness, which demonstrates a need for balancing information with real life experience, as had I more thoroughly dissected the differences between myself and the other members of the group, by culture and Hofstede’s theories, I might not have had the group work experience of learning more about myself and my own cultural leanings and how they influenced the group dynamic. (2002, pp. 87-88)
Though I was assigned a group that was reflective of my own stated cultural history, that of Brazil, and India and Brazil are rather similar on Hofstede’s scales, it turned out that my leanings were much more toward U.S. cultural style and therefore required a different set of challenges and expectations. In Ledwith and Seymour, there is a discussion regarding multicultural group work that I found particularly interesting as I assumed similarities and found differences.
Much of the research about group formation and development, roles, tasks and process supervision and problem solving effectiveness has tended to be within homogeneous cultures. (Belbin, 1981; Tuckman, 1965). Only recently with the new interest in gender and race diversity and equality in the workplace have studies of more heterogeneous and cross-cultural groups begun to emerge (Smith and Berg, 1997; Hambrick et al., 1998; Naulleau and Harper, 1993). Team working at university, in particular where the members are from culturally diverse backgrounds, has been the subject of studies by Watson et al. (1993). They compared homogeneous and diverse task groups of management students, at a large American university. They found that a high degree of cultural diversity initially appeared to constrain process and performance among group members in newly formed groups, with heterogeneous groups lagging behind homogeneous groups at the half way point of nine weeks, in effectiveness in both task and process. At thirteen weeks their progress in process and performance was more rapid and after seventeen weeks the diverse groups were out-performing the homogeneous groups on the two task elements of identifying problems and generating solution alternatives. (2001 p. 1295)
The group work done and the dynamics of this group are reflective of the time it took for myself and the other members to begin to understand each one’s point-of-view and reflect their work toward completing the task at hand in the manner best suited for the project and the group. Early in the project I recognized that the other members of the team wished for more group work time and I began to allow for it. When I realized that they wanted more concrete instructions and collectivism the work became easier, as I began to undusted their point-of-view, not as unimaginative or uninterested but as in wishing for the project to reflect collective rather than individual effort. Sensemaking was essential to my ability to lead the group, as well as the group’s ability to eventually complete the task of research and development. We went in assuming we would be rather homogenous and then found that the dynamic of the group could have broken down as a virtue of differences. Once those differences were noted by myself, the group leader the task became essentially easier, as more time working in the collective was sought by the group and as an individualist, I simply had to adapt to this idea and allow for this time.
Within the works of Charles Handy there is also a message that influenced my thinking on this project and its dynamic and communication strategies. Handy stresses that the application of political ideas to company management is inevitable and in particular he stresses that federalism is the concept most likely to be utilized to demonstrate company structure and change. Not only did I find this to be true regarding the materials gathered in the project context, HP, but also in the collective dynamic of the group communication associated with the work.
THE PROSPECT of applying political principles to management issues makes a great deal of sense, given that organizations today are more and more seen as minisocieties rather than as impersonal systems. But the concept of federalism is particularly appropriate since it offers a well-recognized way to deal with paradoxes of power and control: the need to make things big by keeping them small; to encourage autonomy but within bounds; to combine variety and shared purpose, individuality and partnership, local and global, tribal region and nation state, or nation state and regional bloc. Change a few of the terms and these political issues can be found on the agendas of senior managers in most of the world’s large companies. (Handy, 1993 p. 159)
If one looks at the group as a mini-society then one must create a sense of how that society works together in the small and large context. To do this we as a group had to demonstrate and understanding first of our cultural leanings as members of certain cultures and then we had to look at how we as a group collectively worked together as a mini-society, to get the project completed in the most efficient and productive way possible.
In short I believe I will be less disappointed by the process in the future as I have learned from this process, as well as from reflecting on the process the need to be more rapidly responsive to differentiation in style and desire, based not only on culture but on individualism of participants. If I had recognized the dynamic of the group or the implications of being appointed the group leader prior to the completion of this project I would not have had the experience of adapting to unexpected circumstances and may not have had the opportunity for this insight. Wishing not to assume my skills will be best developed in learning theory concepts of small and large group work, in non-homogenous work groups by learning to recognize potential weaknesses from theory and adapting to them as quickly as possible. One way I could do this in the future would be to ask the group at the onset a couple of simple questions about how they foresee the project coming together, with regard to both the outcome and the process. With this information, I might be more able to reflect theses desires and work styles in the planning and development stage of project management. Had I simply asked my group mates, “how many times would you like to meet to work on this project?” And then expressed my desire to communicate via email and on the phone we may have come to an understanding that could have allowed for the avoidance of conflict and lost time. We could have made an early agreement about these factors and also allowed for flexibility if concerns were raised about the desires of the other students to meet more frequently once they began to better understand the research content of the work.
Bing, J.W. (2004) Hofstede’s Consequences: The Impact of His Work on Consulting and Business Practices. Academy of Management Executive, (18), 1, 80-87.
Handy, C. (1993). Balancing Corporate Power: A New Federalist Paper. The McKinsey Quarterly, (3), 159.
ITIM International Website “Geert Hofstede” Accessed January 7, 2008 at http://www.geert-hofstede.com/
Ledwith, S. & Seymour, D. (December 2001) Home and Away: Preparing Students for Multicultural Management. International Journal of Human resource Management, (12) 8, 1292-1312.
Tomlinson F. & Egan, S. (2002) Organizational Sensemaking in a Culturally Diverse Setting: Limits to the ‘Valuing Diversity’ Discourse. Management Learning, (33) 1, 79-97.
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