How can culturally diverse teams be more creative? Lessons from leaders in East Asia

Culturally diverse teams are a norm in today’s business context, yet despite the potential for intercultural diversity to promote team creativity, this is not always the case.

Past research has revealed that open communication can occur less frequently in culturally diverse teams, as social categorization, stereotyping and bias can create communication barriers (Earley & Mosakowski, 2000). Moreover, team creativity is stifled when team members fail to share and elaborate on information effectively (Van Knippenberg et al. 2004).

Research conducted by Prof. Lu (Shanghai Jiao Tong University), Prof. Li (Xi’an Jiaotong University), Prof. Leung (Chinese University of Hong Kong), Prof. Savani (Nayang Business School Singapore) and Prof. Morris (Columbia Business School), explores the relationship between team cultural diversity and creativity in a Chinese context, and examines the conditions under which multicultural teams can communicate more openly with each other.

The researchers sought to determine whether leaders’ benevolent paternalism – a leadership style common in East Asia – would positively affect how openly team members interact and communicate with each other. Benevolent paternalistic leadership is characterized by: personal concern for subordinate’s overall job-related and personal wellbeing, the development of positive interpersonal relationships and creation of a familial team environment (Morris et al. 2008).

Ultimately the researchers found that leader benevolent paternalism moderates the negative effect of cultural diversity on communication openness, which in turn can promote creativity.

Aim

To examine the leadership conditions under which cross-cultural teams in China can achieve their creative potential.

Methodology

Data was analysed from 48 multicultural teams (including 330 team members and 48 team leaders) in 30 China-based organisations from industries including: manufacturing, financial services, trading, retailing, education and IT.

Participants responded to two online surveys (provided in English and Chinese).

In the first survey, self-report data was collected from team members, measuring:

  • Intercultural diversity. Perceptions of the cultural distance between team members was measured by rating the extent to which other team members’ religion, rituals, values, beliefs, norms and customs were similar on a seven-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all similar) to 7 (highly similar)
  • Leader benevolent paternalism. Sample item: “Beyond work relations, my team leader expresses concern about my daily life”

Two weeks later, the second survey collected self-report data from team members and team leaders, measuring:

  • Intercultural communication openness: Sample item: “It is easy to talk openly to foreign team members”
  • Information elaboration: Sample item: “As a team, we generate ideas and solutions that are much more diverse than those we could develop as individuals”
  • Team creativity: Sample item: “The team’s output is creative”
Findings

The research found that a benevolent paternalistic style of leadership reduces the negative relationship between intercultural diversity and communication openness. In particular, the researchers found:

  1. Culturally diverse teams have communication barriers: Intercultural diversity was significantly and negatively related to intercultural communication openness (b=-.35, p=.009). This result aligned with past findings that in more culturally diverse teams, team members are less open when communicating with each other. In turn, poor communication is associated with less information elaboration and ultimately, team creativity (Chua et al. 2012)
  2. Leader Benevolent Paternalism promotes open communication in culturally diverse teams: When leader benevolent paternalism was low, there was a negative and significant impact on intercultural communication openness (p<.001). Comparatively, when leader benevolent paternalism was high, there was no effect of cultural diversity on communication openness (p=.550). This finding suggests benevolent paternalistic leadership can positively shape intra-team interactions among culturally diverse team members.

In particular, the researchers argue that dimensions of benevolent paternalistic leadership buffer the negative relationship between intercultural diversity and team creativity in the following ways:

  • Benevolent leaders nurture a familial climate for team interactions
  • Benevolent leaders show holistic concern for employees
  • Benevolent leaders create a feeling of psychological safety among team members

In turn, benevolent paternalistic leadership promotes more open and frequent communication among team members.

Implications

Asian organisations seeking to be more innovative by unlocking the creative potential of their culturally diverse teams would do well to consider increasing the presence of benevolent paternalistic leadership behaviours through:

  • Raising awareness of the potential communication barriers that can occur in culturally diverse teams, and their impact on team creativity
  • Educating leaders about the benefits of a having benevolent paternalistic leadership style and the importance of influencing the openness of communication within a culturally diverse team
  • Training leaders in specific paternalistic leadership competencies, such as: demonstrating holistic concern for team members, attending to the well-being of employees, providing mentoring and training and cultivating a family-like and trusting team environment.

This research extends our understanding of how leaders can positively influence the dynamics of culturally diverse teams. In addition to transformational leadership and inclusive leadership styles, multinational and western organisations with culturally and linguistically diverse employees might also seek to understand the benefits of having a benevolent paternalistic leadership style, as there is an obvious question as to whether Asian styles of leadership will add additional value to Western organisations.

For more information, contact Shilpa Didla.

References
  • Lu. L., Li, F., Leung, K., Savani, K. & Morris, M.W. (2015). When can culturally diverse teams be more creative? The role of leaders’ benevolent paternalism, Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 39, 402-415
  • Chua, R.Y.J., Morris, M.W. & Mor, S. (2012). Collaborating across cultures: Cultural metacognition and affect-based trust in creative collaboration. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. 118, 116-131
  • Earley, P.C., & Mosakowski, E. (2000), Creating hybrid team cultures: An empirical test of transnational team functioning. Academy of Management Journal, 43, 26-49
  • Morris M.W., Podolny, J., & Sullivan, B.N. (2008). Culture and coworker relations: Interpersonal patterns in American, Chinese, German and Spanish divisions of a global retail bank. Organization Science, 19, 517-532
  • Van Knippenberg, D., De Dreu, C.K.W., & Homan, A.C. (2004). Work group diversity and group performance: An integrative model and research agenda. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 1008-1022.

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