Information-sharing is a problem in almost every company. But new research shows it is more of a problem on multi-cultural teams. A recent study found that, in the workplace, people tend to trust and attribute a higher status to colleagues whose cultural backgrounds are similar to their own. As a result, members of the majority nationality group — and minorities who share cultural similarities with the majority — also share the most information with one another. Whereas, minorities with the most cultural differences are often attributed a lower status and information is withheld from them. This withholding can cause those from “low status” minority groups to underperform and has a negative impact on the organization as a whole. So, how can companies stop these cultural biases? One way is to assign managers to observe group projects. The social pressure of being watched forces employees to look beyond the stereotypes and cultural differences of their colleagues, and instead, rely on an individual’s merit. Companies can also actively encourage knowledge-sharing between coworkers by creating inclusive, transparent workspaces where people feel comfortable exchanging feedback and are aware one another’s areas of expertise.
Imagine you are a member of a purchasing team. Your manager sets a goal: she wants everyone on your team to make at least one deal with a supply company of their choice. You end up signing a deal with a supplier who offers a great price, but — unbeknownst to you — is infamously slow to deliver. One of your colleagues has worked with them before, but the two of you haven’t been communicating much with each other, so he fails to advise you against it. Because you never receive this vital information, your performance suffers.
Information-sharing is a problem in almost every company. But my latest research shows it is more of a problem on multi-cultural teams. The more cultural distance employees perceive, the more the problem is exacerbated.
My latest research — in collaboration with Dr. Wendy van Ginkel and Prof. Daan van Knippenberg — looks into the impact an employee’s cultural background has on their ability to perform as a part of a team. We found that the amount of bias an employee experiences is largely dependent on the extent of their cultural differences from the rest of their team. In the workplace, people tend to trust and attribute a higher status to colleagues whose cultural backgrounds are similar to their own. As a result, members of the majority nationality group — and minorities who share cultural similarities with the majority — also share the most information with one another. Whereas, minorities with the most cultural differences are often attributed a lower status and information is withheld from them. This withholding can cause those from “low status” minority groups to underperform and never reach their full potential.
The experiment we conducted split 180 participants into teams of three — which included two Dutch members and a German or Chinese third team member — who were asked to complete the task of opening a fictional theatre. To be successful, all participants needed to receive pieces of vital information from each member of their team. Individual performances were directly correlated to the amount of information their team members shared. Conversations were recorded and observed to determine just how much information each person received. We found that the German and Dutch participants did not differ in terms of having access to information, thus they performed equally well. The Chinese participants, however, received less information from their Dutch counterparts, therefore performing worse than both the German and Dutch participants.
Until now, most research has assumed that being part of a minority nationality leaves an employee at a disadvantage, but our research has shown that not all minorities are stereotyped and categorized equally. When cultural differences were small, the status of the minority group was not necessarily lower than the status of the majority group and information-sharing was unaffected — as we saw with the Dutch and German team members. When cultural differences were large, the status of the minority group was much lower than the status of the majority group and information was less likely to be shared with them — as we saw with the Chinese team members.
Naturally, if certain employees are not receiving vital business information, it will eventually have a negative impact on the larger organization. So, how can managers stop these cultural biases from infiltrating their teams?
Oversee and observe group projects. Our research indicated that when teams were observed rather than just recorded, individuals shared information with their coworkers regardless of their cultural background. A third-party presence unconsciously made them more accountable for their actions. The social pressure of being watched forces employees to look beyond the stereotypes and cultural differences of their colleagues, and instead, rely on an individual’s merit. This increases the likelihood of unbiased knowledge-sharing.
In the workplace, this observer could be a colleague or a manager. Open-plan offices also make it easier for managers to regularly monitor how their team members are interacting.
Value knowledge-sharing and diversity. Companies should actively encourage knowledge-sharing between colleagues. For example, during team meetings, managers should attempt to create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing new ideas, asking questions, and giving feedback to one another.
Increasing the diversity of a team will also create a more open and inclusive workplace. The more cultural differences your team members have, the more likely they are to perceive themselves as one unit — and the less likely it is for a majority group based on nationality to form.
Help your team get to know each other. It is important for your team members to be aware of one another’s areas of expertise. As a leader you can help them to do this by being transparent and sharing this information for them at the beginning of a project. Individuals ascribe high status to colleagues whom they consider experts, regardless of their cultural backgrounds.
To be successful, organizations must tackle both conscious and unconscious biases. Implementing strategies to encourage employees to work together, despite subconscious inclinations to work more closely with people they view as more similar to them, will positively impact individual output. This is especially important for the performance of minority group employees who have, until now, been hindered by a lack of information-sharing from their colleagues.
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