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Culturally diverse teams can help deliver better outcomes in today’s organizations. But these teams often suffer from conflicting norms and differing assumptions between members, which can keep them from reaching their full creative potential. When managers don’t know how to spot and address these situations, cultural diversity may actually inhibit a team’s creative performance. A series of studies shows that two types of culturally diverse team members can help a team’s creativity: cultural insiders (people who have multicultural experiences that map directly onto the cultures they are bridging), and cultural outsiders (people with experience in two or more cultures not represented on the team).
Culturally diverse teams, research shows, can help deliver better outcomes in today’s organizations. This is largely a good thing: Diverse teams have the potential to be more creative because of the breadth of information, ideas, and perspectives that members can bring to the table. But these teams often suffer from conflicting norms and differing assumptions between members, which can keep them from reaching their full creative potential. When managers don’t know how to spot and address these situations, cultural diversity may actually inhibit a team’s creative performance.
My research, recently published in Organization Science, finds that cultural brokerage is a key factor that allows multicultural teams to capitalize on the benefits of diversity while mitigating the pitfalls. I define cultural brokerage as the act of facilitating interactions across parties from different cultural backgrounds. In two studies — an archival study of over 2,000 multicultural teams and an experiment involving 83 multicultural teams with different cultural compositions — I found that teams were significantly more creative when they had one or more members who acted as a cultural broker.
Who are these cultural brokers? They’re team members who have relatively more multicultural experience than others and who act as a bridge between their monocultural teammates. These brokers come in two profiles. First, they can have multicultural experiences that map directly onto the cultures they are bridging between. For example, in a team with mostly Indian and American team members, a cultural broker could be someone with experience in both Indian and American cultures. I call such individuals cultural insiders. The second type of cultural broker is someone with experience in two or more cultures not represented in the team — say, Australian and Korean. I call such individuals cultural outsiders.
I found that cultural insiders and outsiders each draw on their distinct cultural backgrounds relative to the team to engage in different kinds of cultural brokerage. In the experimental study, cultural insiders used their dual knowledge of the other cultures on their team to integrate information and ideas from those cultures. In other words, they often proposed ideas that combined elements of both cultures. Meanwhile, cultural outsiders drew on their position as a neutral third party to elicit information and ideas from the other cultures represented in the team. That is, they tended to ask questions to other team members and invite them to share relevant cultural knowledge. Both types of cultural brokerage led to a boost in creativity at the team level.
What does this mean for organizations?
First and foremost, this research suggests that it is not enough to simply bring together people from different cultures and expect them to produce creative outcomes. For teams to unleash their full creative potential, it is critical to have at least one multicultural insider or outsider in the group. The latter type of broker, I suspect, may be less common in organizations, because many people incorrectly assume only those with culture-specific knowledge are in a position to facilitate cross-cultural interactions. In fact, however, cultural outsiders are just as effective as cultural insiders in enhancing team creativity. This is particularly good news for highly diverse teams, where it is unlikely that a single insider cultural insider will be present.
At the same time, this doesn’t mean you should simply assign someone to be a cultural broker and call it day. A formal appointment does not guarantee that a person will be effective; instead, organizations should take care to create the conditions that can allow cultural brokerage to emerge. Remember, being a broker requires substantial cognitive and emotional effort. Because of this, effective cultural brokerage is more likely to emerge in teams with a high level of psychological safety. It also requires active participation and buy-in from the team as a whole, and it’s more likely to emerge in teams that view diversity as a resource and a source of learning.
Collaboration in multicultural teams is a complex and multifaceted endeavor. While this type of work can be challenging, my research suggests that understanding the dynamics of cultural brokerage provides a critical advantage in realizing the creative potential of diverse teams.