According to new research by business school INSEAD, the presence of multicultural members within diverse teams significantly enhances the overall teams’ creative performance.
Cultural diversity in business provides many advantages, allowing organizations and teams to benefit from multiple perspectives, knowledge, and ideas. However, differing cultural norms and beliefs can also lead to misunderstanding or conflict, standing in the way of effective collaboration.
A new research article, recently published in Organization Science, finds that individuals who have a multicultural background can play a pivotal role in diverse teams by acting as ‘cultural brokers’, whereby their more nuanced understanding of culture means they can facilitate interactions between individuals across cultural boundaries, within diverse teams.
Taking archival data from a global business student competition, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour Sujin Jang analyzed data from 2,117 teams over five years, with participants from more than 40 countries, who had eight weeks to come up with a business plan proposing the “next big idea” for a company of their choice.
The data showed that within diverse teams, the presence of multicultural members significantly enhanced the teams’ creative performance.
Surprisingly, multicultural members enhanced the creative performance of the team irrespective of whether they shared the same cultural background with other team members. ‘Cultural outsiders’, who shared no common background with the rest of the team, were just as effective as ‘cultural insiders’, who shared a cultural background with one or more other members, at facilitating greater creativity in their team.
In short, teams with one or more multicultural members, regardless of whether those multicultural were cultural insiders or outsiders, were found to outperform teams devoid of multicultural individuals.
Assistant Professor Sujin Jang said: “These results show how multiculturalism can enable teams to capitalize on the strengths of cultural diversity to generate creative outcomes while avoiding the pitfalls associated with cross-cultural collaboration.”
Two types of cultural brokerage: integrating vs. eliciting
A second experimental study was constructed to assess the actual processes involved in cultural brokerage. In this experiment, 83 teams, comprised of two monoculture members and one multicultural individual – either a cultural insider or outsider – were asked to propose creative ideas for a multicultural wedding involving a special ritual, musical performance and food dish that incorporated elements of two different cultures.
Results showed that cultural insiders and outsiders enact cultural brokerage in different ways. Cultural insiders primarily brokered by integrating ideas from different cultures, directly combining or synthesizing ideas from varying perspectives into a novel whole.
Meanwhile, cultural outsiders tended to broker by eliciting ideas from different cultures, drawing out cultural information, ideas or knowledge by asking pertinent questions.
Both types of cultural brokerage enhanced the creative performance of the team as a whole. In fact, integrating and eliciting jointly explained 28 percent of the variance in team creative performance.
The implications for organizations
While every company has a different cultural context, the research suggests that all firms stand to gain by leveraging the diverse knowledge and perspectives of their increasingly multicultural teams.
“Organizations would do well to think about the conditions they could put in place to facilitate cultural brokerage”, says Jang. “For example, it may be helpful to give recognition to potential cultural brokers or provide opportunities for them to enact this role, as they are not always the most senior person in their team.”
“It is also important to keep in mind that cultural outsiders, multicultural individuals who have no overlap with the cultures of other individuals in a team, can be effective cultural brokers.”
These individuals are often overlooked because we tend to assume that one needs to have knowledge of the specific cultures represented in a team to engage in cultural brokerage. However, the findings of this research highlight the important role that cultural outsiders can play in enhancing team creativity.”
About INSEAD, The Business School for the World
As one of the world’s leading and largest graduate business schools, INSEAD brings together people, cultures, and ideas to change lives and to transform organizations. A global perspective and cultural diversity are reflected in all aspects of our research and teaching.
With campuses in Europe (France), Asia (Singapore) and the Middle East (Abu Dhabi), INSEAD’s business education and research span three continents. The school’s 145 renowned Faculty members from 40 countries inspire more than 1,400-degree participants annually in its MBA, Executive MBA, Executive Master in Finance, Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change and PhD programmes. In addition, more than 11,000 executives participate in INSEAD’s executive education programmes each year.