Research on teamwork in professional contexts illuminates the issues that arise for students as well. Challenges often arise from sources other than differences of language or classroom experience; they can come from different views of organizations, hierarchy, decision-making, and -- perhaps most important -- expressing agreement or disagreement. Whether students see these differences as being individual or cultural may be less important than helping them identify differences and work through them.
Issues: Challenges to cross cultural teamwork
Direct versus indirect communication
Disagreement may be expressed by tone of agreement or absence of agreement, rather than explicit statement of disagreement.
- Disagreement may be expressed by suggesting a different idea, at a later time, rather than immediately.
- These two ways of expressing disagreement may lead a student with a direct style to think that agreement has been reached – because there is no explicit disagreement – and to be confused or irritated when others act as if there is no agreement later.
- Pointing out problems explicitly – to others outside the team – can violate expectations that team members need to "save face" for one another and deal with problems as a group.
Conflicting norms for decision making
Students in the U.S. typically like to make decisions quickly, and revise if needed; many other cultural management styles involve longer, deeper analysis before coming to a decision. This may leave others looking "weak" in Americans' eyes, and Americans looking "reckless" in others' eyes.
Differing attitudes toward hierarchy, authority, and respect
- Deference to authority figures is stronger in many other cultural, national, and educational settings, than in the U.S.
- Maintaining respect for team members even in the face of disagreement or disappointment, is stronger in other cultures than in the U.S.
Trouble with accents and fluency
Despite their best intentions, native speakers may become frustrated with the time it takes them to get used to non-native speakers' accents, word use, or general fluency.
- Problems with translation can also affect perceptions of competence on both sides.
- Expertise of non-native speakers can be lost to the process if they lose motivation to contribute fully, because the native speakers do not fully include them.
- Side conversations in different languages can be a source of annoyance and division.
- Conflicts that arise due to misunderstanding and impatience can damage relationships and severely diminish motivation and team performance.
Note: The list of challenges is from Brett, J., Behfar, K., & Kern, M. (2006). Explanations are rewritten by Crisca Bierwert, CRLT
Strategies for cross cultural teamwork
- Explain the value of collaboration, and the fact that collaborative skills need to be learned
- Encourage cooperation
- Recognize and acknowledge early signs of differences in communication, and expectations
- Provide students with some training about variations in communication and decision-making styles
- Ensure that all participants have time during discussion to share views and ideas
- Be prepared for gaps in understanding and think of ways to use these as effective learning, and review opportunities for all students; and
- Identify and discuss processes for agreement and disagreement, with room for revision
Designing collaborative work
- Start with well-defined tasks and increase the difficulty
- Be flexible as you keep track of the students' development, and project development
- Be clear whether you expect all team members to contribute to ALL tasks, or if you want them to divide the work
- Assign the teams yourself (as instructor)
- Assure heterogeneity in terms of ability
- Do not outnumber or isolate (e.g. putting one to a group) women and minorities, if possible
- Provide recourse for dysfunctional teams
- Be explicit about grading policies for team assignments at the start of term
- Have students reflect on and assess their collaborations, their team members, their own teamwork; and
- Have them do this during the process – not just at the end
Brett, J., Behfar, K., & Kern, M. (2006). Managing Multicultural Teams.
Harvard Business Review 84(11), 89-96.
Focus groups with U-M faculty and students with cross cultural experience in higher education (facilitated by CRLT).
Views of U-M undergraduate students during a breakout session of 2010 U-M Summit of International Students.
"Student Teams in the STEM Classroom," CRLT Engineering workshop presented on varying occasions by Cynthia Finelli
Additional resources on teaching with group work and team work:
- CRLT Teaching Strategies page on using group work and team work
- CRLT Occasional Paper: Student Teams in the Engineering Classroom and Beyond
- CRLT-TLTC Occasional Paper: Development and Assessment of Intercultural Engagement