Multi-cultural teams introduce challenges into the already fraught world of work. In a culturally homogeneous environment, different types of egos, behavioral styles, and modes of interaction make teamwork complex if not outright contentious. When you introduce multiple cultures into the mix, that adds another dimension of complexity. The tasks of communicating, making decisions, taking ownership, assigning responsibility, and providing feedback become more difficult
because teammates have to not only accommodate personality differences but also opposing cultural norms.
In American business, a popular approach to managing teams involves using the 'Golden Rule', which holds that one should treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. This approach uses the principle of reciprocity for determining how to interact with one's peers. This sentiment works well in monocultural environments in which all participants share the same cultural values and norms. However, in a multicultural environment, when one individual attempts to reciprocate in a way that is culturally appropriate for her or him, but inappropriate to a peer from another culture, the results can be disastrous.
By way of example, an American company is courting a Chinese financier and invites him to visit the plant. The Americans are determined to give him five star treatment. The tour goes well. A smart, black SUV limousine pulls up to take the executive group to the best restaurant in town. The Director steps forward and opens the passenger side door for the financier to get in and enjoy the best seat. The financier looks surprised and slightly alarmed, but gets in. The rest of the team gets in the back, and they head to the restaurant. By the time they arrive, it is clear that something has gone wrong. The financier makes an excuse and asks the limo driver to return him to his hotel. He will not be staying for lunch. Later, the group learns that they've inadvertently insulted their Chinese guests. The place of honor in a car in China is the seat behind the passenger seat, not beside the driver.
The remedy for situations like the one in the example is often the Platinum Rule, which is a derivation of the Golden Rule. It holds that one treat others as they would like to be treated. This approach employs the same reciprocity as the Golden Rule, but implements it in a manner that is desirable to the receiver. In 20th Century business culture, Dr. Anthony Alessandra has popularized the Platinum Rule by advocating for it in the areas of customer service and design experience. However, it's not just an American business trend. Social psychologist have found similar instances of this law of reciprocity in all major religious and ethical traditions.
The Platinum Rule approach requires that team members seek out each others thoughts, opinions, input and feedback. The manager's role is to encourage team members to communicate their preferences, listen to others they would like to be interacted with, and be aware of both others and their non-verbal queues. In the beginning, this process can seem overly burdensome. Indeed, compared with making assumption that everyone is in agreement unless someone states otherwise, which is common in American business culture, it is. However, after some practice, this model of continual checking-in can develop into a finely tuned feedback loop in which teams effectively and efficiently question, challenge, and resolve issues. Advocating the Platinum Rule enables teams to recognize ambiguous issues and conflicts that have arisen not from differences in professional approaches or technical competence, but from cultural clashes.
The Americans in the example can't be faulted for not knowing every detail of Chinese culture. No one could. They were simply following the Golden Rule when the Platinum Rule was needed. The Director could have avoided the situation in one of two ways. First, he could have been more transparent and explained both his intention and his behavior. "As a sign of respect, we've reserved the front in the limousine for you." That explanation would have informed the Chinese financier that he was being shown respect according to a different cultural norm. Second, he could have asked the financier what his preference was, saying something like "as our guest of honor, where would you like to sit in the limousine?"
This behavioral change isn't a grand paradigm shift. It still operates under the principle of reciprocation. The difference is that it advocates that one inquires about how to reciprocate rather than assume one already knows.