Valuing and incorporating cultural differences in multicultural groups

An example of working with Indian cultural counterparts

Thesis (M.A.), 2009

92 Pages

Martin Sebastian Scheuplein (Author)



1. Introduction

2. Theoretical framework
2.1. Relevance of the topic - multicultural teams and their performance
2.2. Location in the academic field
2.3. A discourse on "Culture" and its place in the intercultural group
2.4. On the hierarchy of needs and cultural safety in intercultural groups
2.5. Intercultural Communication

3. On groups vs. teams, their culture and development
3.1. The difference between Groups and Teams
3.2. A differentiation between mono-cultural and multicultural groups
3.3. A working definition of Group Development
3.4. Classification of the theoretical models of group development

4. The combined FIRO cycle
4.1. The first phase: "Forming"
4.2. The second phase: "Conflict" or "Storming"
4.3. The third phase: "Norming"
4.4. The forth phase: "Production" or "Performing"
4.5. The fifth phase: "Termination" or "Adjourning"
4.6. Discussion of the combined FIRO cycle
4.7. The intercultural group in the model of the FIRO cycle
4.7.1. Task related strategies
4.7.2. Process related strategies

5. Uses and dangers of stereotypes when learning about a new culture
5.1. Hofstede's representation of cultures through cultural dimensions
5.2. The example of India as a constructed image

6. Contemporary representations of the Indian culture
6.1. The Hindu belief system
6.1.1.Moksha- the goal of life
6.1.2. Dharma- doing right and wrong
6.1.3. Karma- rebirth and the Indian mind
6.1.4. The four stages of life
6.1.5. Hierarchical principles
6.2. Implications of the Hindu belief system
6.3. India's cultural dimensions
6.3.1. Dimension: individualism vs. collectivism
6.3.2. Dimension: distance to power vs. equality
6.3.3. Dimension: avoiding uncertainty
6.3.4. Dimension: masculinity and femininity
6.3.5. Dimension: Time and time-orientation
6.4. A metaphorical journey of describing India

7. Incorporating culture into the work with intercultural group participants
7.1. The mapping phase
7.2. Using stereotypes from the business literature as a cultural map
7.3. Building bridges
7.4. Integrating the insights and synergizing them into new solutions

8. Conclusion

9. Literature:

Abstract in German:

List of figures:

Figure 1: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Figure 2: Balancing cultural safety

Figure 3: Communication model

Figure 4: Classification of Group Development Models

Figure 5: The combined FIRO cycle

Figure 6: Task and Process aspects in the intercultural group

Figure 7: Cultural dimensions

Figure 8: The 'map-bridge-integrate' model

Figure 9: Cultural values & behavioral patterns

"One has to recognize that countries and people differ in their approach and their ways of living and thinking. In order to understand them we have to understand their way of life and approach. If we wish to convince them, we have to use their language as far as we can, not language in the narrow sense of the word, but the language of the mind."

1. Introduction

During my time in India in the winter of 2007, I had the chance to work at the GTZ office (German agency for technical development cooperation GmbH) in New Delhi. My internship there took place in the department of 'microfinance', where I had the chance to experience directly the multicultural interactions in a group of people from two different countries. As German and Indian employees were working together, we had to cooperate with each other in order to work effectively and agree on a common direction. From this interaction experience and from seeing the different approaches to work, my desire to learn about the intercultural aspects of work groups grew. I have been specifically interested in how to improve the interpersonal interaction process of people from different cultural backgrounds. Based on my work as a trainer for youth groups before and after my stay in India, I aimed to combine this experience with the previous question and sought to propose a generalized solution on how a facilitator can improve the interpersonal interaction process within a group of participants coming from different cultural backgrounds, and specifically for groups with people from India.

This work therefore explores the implications of culture for multicultural groups and suggests ways of recognizing cultural differences with the aim of incorporating them into the group structure in the long run. In order to build an effective and supporting intercultural team, the cultural differences need to be acknowledged and not glossed over, so that the group can build on these strengths to find innovative and creative solutions. On the premise that group participants develop stereotypical assumptions about the cultural other that may hinder the communication and interaction process, this work sets out to suggest solutions to this problem. In this context, the current approaches to intercultural group work are insufficient and ineffective because they not only lack the theoretical background that helps to foster the understanding of cultural differences, but also fail to integrate the implications of these insights into an approach for the effective development of the group. To this purpose, the general aim of this paper is to lay out ways in which culturally diverse groups differ in their usual phases of group dynamics and to suggest ways of enhancing the team building process so that the group can pass smoothly through its problematic stages and reach its full effectiveness. This work will start by raising awareness about differing views on culture and lay out the essentials of any intercultural communication process. Then the different group development phases that a group passes through in its existence will be analyzed. Furthermore, I will answer the question why stereotypes exist when dealing with cultural others and what these look like specifically in a description of India. On top of these descriptions I will suggest an approach on how to assess and to incorporate these stereotypical assumptions into the group structure in order to build a reliable intercultural team on the basis of mutual understanding and respect for culturally different approaches.

This thesis contains six main parts. In the first part I will show why the theoretical topic of intercultural groups and teams is relevant in practice. Cross-cultural training is of increasing importance for the economic and developmental field, where people have to interact on a daily basis with multicultural teams and members from different cultures. Creating a good atmosphere and an increased understanding of the cultural self and the cultural other therefore becomes more and more important. Starting with a compact discussion of the concept of "culture", I will define a working definition of the term, and will show how old and new views on the concepts can have their place in intercultural training situations.

The second part will outline why it is not necessary to differentiate between groups and teams in the context of this work. While in some research areas the distinction might be necessary in order to shed light onto specific aspects of the interaction of participants, for this work the differentiation is of no additional value, as a multicultural group develops in both contexts (i.e. the integration of members of both teams and groups in an intercultural situation), and the ideas presented in this thesis therefore apply to all instances where a group of culturally diverse people has to interact and depend on each other for a longer period of time. Furthermore, this chapter will provide a working definition of 'group development' and will present different theoretical models of this concept in brief.

After having laid out a theoretical basis in the first two parts, the third part deals with the specific stages that each group may pass through during its composition. Starting with a period where the 'forming' of the group and the general 'getting to know each other' stages prevail and the importance lies on the 'me' and 'you' aspects of the interaction, the group advances through phases of 'role definition' and conflict, where it has to deal with issues concerning the ways of working together and the status of each participant in the group. After that, the group reaches its productive phase, just before issues of departure and termination become important. The key lesson in this section is the fact that as a trainer or facilitator of such a group, one can use theoretical insights about the group development stages in order to support the group in each specific phase so that it does reach the productive stage and is not held up by internal dilemmas.

The fourth part deals with the uses of stereotypes and prejudices when learning about a new culture, and the dangers and potential values of these concepts. By critically evaluating the inherent problems of these assumptions, my thesis reaches the conclusion that they may be used as starting points for further evaluation and discussion. This section then critically assesses Hofstede's cultural dimensions approach, and analyzes how the cultural representation and construction of the Indian image has been subjected to underlying struggles of power.

The fifth part then lays out three specific examples of representations of 'the Indian culture'. The first focuses on the Hindu belief system as a major cultural backbone of society and its implications on everyday life. This account is followed by the specific scores, which the Indian culture holds on the cultural dimensions axes from Hofstede. As a third example, I present a description of India through the use of a metaphorical story, which characterizes the Indian culture nicely. This section aims at showing how one can enhance the understanding of the cultural counterparts in multicultural groups and how to foster group discussion by taking elements from these stereotypical assumptions as a basis for further evaluation of the true nature of the people in the group.

In the final part of this thesis, the 'map-bridge-integrate' approach is presented. It suggests a way of combining the theoretical insights made to this point with the stereotypical description of the (in this case Indian) other through a three step discussion-game. In this 'game', the stereotypical assumptions from the group members and the representations made by the cultural dimensions approaches are used as a basis for discussion. They should help guide the process to finding an agreement on how to best integrate cultural differences into the group, so as to create a most effective group culture. In following the proposed approach, the group is put in a situation in which it is more likely to value cultural differences, communicate and work together more effectively, and better understand the behavior of culturally diverse people.

2. Theoretical framework

2.1. Relevance of the topic - multicultural teams and their performance

It has become a cliché to say that "the world is shrinking and becomes a 'global village'" (Ferraro 1998: 9). However, it is also a useful metaphor that describes part of the 7 globalization process we have been experiencing in the last decades. While technological innovations in transportation and communication might have brought the world and its people closer together in a physical sense, a similar movement has not necessarily taken place in terms of cross-cultural understanding. Among other factors there is an increased dissolution of the specific 'locations' where cultural groups were supposed to be found. Appadurai calls this phenomenon the 'global space,' which is a construct of a place with and within a set of unequal power distributions. Along with this idea comes an additional concept - that of 'deterritorialized ethnoscapes'. This term refers to the ways in which people relate themselves to a place where they do not actually live, although this place is important enough that people do derive their identity from it (Appadurai 2000: 33f). Examples of people drawing of deterritorialized ethnoscapes include tourists, immigrants, guest workers, or other moving groups and individuals who place high value on certain cultural traits of their 'original' culture, but may live (maybe all of their life) in a 'new' country or culture. Both concepts are important in a global perspective as they affect the politics of (and between) nations and also add to the understanding that "(…) the landscapes of group identity - the ethnoscapes - around the world are no longer familiar anthropological objects, insofar as groups are no longer tightly territorialized, spatially bounded, historically unselfconscious, or culturally homogeneous (Appadurai 2000: 48).

For this work, the dislocation of identity from place has several implications. Since the end of the 1990's, most businesses, school or other educational institutions, private groups (i.e. sport teams), development organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGO's) and many more such groups are all increasingly dealing with group members coming from different cultural backgrounds. These multicultural groups have many potential advantages due to their heterogeneous composition, but can loose their 'winning margin' quickly if the differences in work and communication styles are not managed well. Also, the mix between unnecessary misunderstandings and 'real' issues of difference can interfere with the group's overall purpose. It is my aim in this thesis to contribute to a thorough understanding of intercultural group work, and thus help to bridge the possibility of misunderstandings in such groups.

While studies have shown that the comparative advantages of groups lie especially in their enhanced potential to come up with creative problem-solving solutions, the ability to combine various viewpoints for answering complex questions, and an effectiveness to react to (international) changes dynamically, the disadvantages are just as apparent. These lie most obviously in the heterogeneous composition of the group, and the time and effort that is needed to deal with the participants' different approaches (Schneider & Barsoux 1997: 181).

Participants from the same cultural background aren't aware of many of the differences in communication or social interaction styles of culturally different people, as they expect that people from their own cultural upbringing react in ways that are familiar to the way they would react themselves. They expect others to only respond in ways that they know and understand. Misunderstandings occur when these expectations are not fulfilled by others, who behave in a way that is familiar and 'natural' to themselves, but of course different to what the cross-cultural observer would expect. The theoretical background of this difference in expectations has been developed by Michel Foucault in his concept of 'naturalization'. He argued in several of his books that power structures and disciplinary streams in society both aim to normalize the individual in society and affect at the same time how the individual normalizes society too. Foucault shows in his book on "L'ordre du discours" how power- relations among individuals and the implicit but active act of excluding knowledge from this discourse through 'prohibitions' can function as forms of avoiding change and at the same time work as a form of constituting identity to the individual and the society in which the discourse takes place, by permanently re-actualizing the rules of the discourse (Foucault 1996: 11 & 25). In other words, the theory shows how the 'flexible individual' adapts, adjusts and (self-) controls him/herself in order to not 'fall out of line', but to remain in the known, or 'safe-zone' with the other subjects in his/her society or culture. Thereby the known forms of culture are seen and valued as natural and normal, versus the other, which is seen as unknown, un-natural and different, and therefore needing to be discarded (Bublitz 2008: 393). It is important to add in this context that is not one or a group of individuals, who hold the power and therefore decide to continue in a certain direction, but rather the occurrence of power is something that 'unfolds' in the society and among the individuals (Foucault 1977: 38; also Ruoff 2007: 147).

When interacting in a multicultural group or team situation collectively, the assumption of a differing reaction to certain personal or work issues needs to be addressed and problematized. Building a good team requires "a balance of individual and collective effort" (Schneider & Barsoux 1997: 181), or to put it in other words, effective teamwork needs a willingness of the individual to see and work on cultural differences, combined with a willingness of the whole group to spend time and effort on a subject that may not appear necessary at first sight, but that may be well worth the effort when reflecting back on the process.

In theory, teams with members from different cultural backgrounds bring new ideas, new approaches, new perspectives and different pools of knowledge to the table; because of this, they are able to enhance their creative potential and their problem-solving ability to create competitive advantages over monocultural teams. In reality, however, these groups have to deal with problems related to their individual expectations, their preferred way of dealing with the work in the group, and their personal values (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 45). They also "(…) have to confront differences in attitudes, values, behavior, experience, background, expectations, and even language" in order to build effective working relationships (Schneider & Barsoux 1997: 184).

Adler (1997) and DiStefano & Maznevski (2000) have researched the performance of multiculturally diverse work teams in comparison to rather homogeneous groups. They concluded that diverse teams tend to perform either better or worse than homogeneous ones, but with more of them performing worse. Specifically when the individual and diverse needs of the members are not taken into account sufficiently and misunderstandings about the group approach remain. DiStefano and Maznevski have therefore identified three possible outcomes of intercultural teams:

- The destroyer teams (or 'dysfunctional', according to Hogan 2007): These groups have ended in disaster, with team-members attacking and mistrusting each other, and the formal leader making decisions without sincere discussions. The group therefore 'destroyed' the potential value of their diversity and multiculturality (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 47).
- The equalizer teams: During the research most culturally diverse teams who thought of themselves as doing extremely well fell into this category. But rather than producing new ideas they smudged over their differences and settled into a mediocre compromise (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 47). In this outcome, the possible benefit from the diverse composition of the group is not realized, but at least the group is able to work and produce results.
- The creator teams: These groups produced results "exceeding even their own expectations" (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 48). They dealt with their diverse backgrounds by understanding, incorporating, and leveraging their individual differences in order to create a team even greater than the sum of its parts (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 48). They used their heterogeneous backgrounds to their fullest potential.

The main explanation for differences in outcome of the different types of multicultural groups lies in whether the group has worked on their internal dynamics and dealt with their differences in problem solving, communication styles and general approaches to work, and then incorporated a way of building the value of their differences into the work process (DiStefano & Maznevski 2000: 48).

The most desired outcome of a multicultural group is obviously the third above mentioned option of the creator group. The aim of this thesis is to demonstrate how to help build a 'creator' group through a three step approach. In the last chapter, the 'map-bridge- integrate' model will be presented, which lays out the kinds of differences that can arise in multicultural groups, discusses them accordingly, and then integrates these differences into the group.

2.2. Location in the academic field

The relevance of groups with intercultural composition has grown tremendously in the last decades. The original research and literature however, has focused on the topic of multicultural work teams not until many business endeavors were experiencing difficulties with these culturally diverse compositions. This trend was picked up in the 1980's when Nancy Adler published one of the benchmark books called "International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior" in 1986 containing a chapter on Multicultural Teams. From that point, the academic field evolved in different directions. The biggest contribution without question came from the psychological field and their research on groups and organizations (Podsiadlowski 2002: 19). Research in the field of social psychology tried to explain how thinking, feeling and the behavior of individuals were influenced by the presence of other individuals (see i.e. Frey & Irle 1993; Smith & Bond 1993, West 1996, Worchel & Austin 1986). The research on organizations, on the other hand, has been influenced by the field of management research (see i.e. Laurent 1983, Moran & Harris 1981, Scherm 1995).

Social anthropology has dealt with the topic of intercultural groups only indirectly. Since Malinowski, the 'founding father' of the field, carried out his fieldwork on the Trobriand Islands, countless accounts of specific cultures and groups have been produced. Due to internal and self-critical developments in the scientific orientation of the field (which will not be discussed in detail in this work), additional and new issues of research were starting to become popular. These new areas of research address subjects such as "Intercultural Communication" (see i.e. William B. Gudykunst), "Research in Organizations" (see for example the earliest but rather questionable account from the Hawthorne Works by Henry A.

Landsberger), and research on classifying cultures in some form or the other (see i.e. Ruth Benedict 1934, Hofstede 1980, Hall/Hall 1991) - among others.

The topic of "Multinational Teams" became important as a research focus due to questions concerning the value of teamwork (i.e. Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn 2001), effectiveness (mostly in a western context) (i.e. Hofner Saphiere 1996), social conformity (i.e. Bond Smith 1996), and cross-cultural leadership (i.e. Erez & Early 1993), but for a long time anthropology has, in the eyes of Chambers, avoided working with the international and practically oriented business community because of a "highly prejudiced ethical stance which associates commercial success and profit taking with a lack of concern for human welfare" (Chambers 1985: 128). This has changed in recent years, but some form of 'aftertaste' remains. The field of social anthropology has for a long time seen its self-defined purpose in the holistic explanation and deduction of theories from social reality rather than in suggesting new solutions. While this theoretical orientation has its strengths, in my opinion social anthropology lacks the translation of its theoretical insights into the praxis; and I agree with Chambers, when he continues to state that "ironically, it is areas of application such as these [business and industry], that many anthropologists have seemed so anxious to avoid, which might profit most from their association" (Chambers 1985: 128).

In the following section I will outline what anthropology - and more specifically the concept of culture - can contribute to applied work with intercultural group members.

2.3. A discourse on "Culture" and its place in the intercultural group

Following is an overview on how the concept of culture evolved from a rather fixed and static concept associating a culture with one specific geographic location, to a new understanding that regards culture as something fluid and flexible and not connected to a specific territorial area. I will describe how both understandings of culture can be helpful when working with an international group - the first when giving the group something rather easy to understand, and the second, when a more defined and thorough understanding is the aim.

The concept of culture is essential to any encounter with the cultural other. By defining the concept theoretically one thereby implicitly selects the object as well as the focus of study. Over the years many scholars have theorized and finalized their definitions of the culture concept. The first and original definition of culture consisted of "(…) that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society" (Tylor 19581871: 1). This definition has changed in the decades that followed; but it seems that Clifford Geertz used some essential elements from this original definition in his own interpretation. For him, "culture denotes [a] historically transmitted pattern of meaning embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life" (1973: 89). In this definition, Geertz stresses the aspect of a 'pattern of meaning' that the culture bearers derive from their own community and through interactions with others, and differentiates himself thereby from the institutional view of Tylor. This 'system of inherited conceptions' naturalizes, as already stated above, the known and creates or otherizes the unknown other as exotic. In this context, the concept still implicitly depicts cultures as the "learnt social knowledge of coherent and consistent social unities, which live in territorially separate spaces from one another" (author's translation from Thomas 1993: 380).

Especially the last aspect, where different cultures are seen to be located and associated with specific localities is being criticized. The 'contemporary' understanding of the concept particularly responds to and criticizes this territorial specificity of the preceding definition of culture.

Before turning to the new understanding of the concept of culture, an additional viewpoint has to be presented here, as the following author will play an important role in the later part of this work. The second definition of culture stems from Hofstede and aims in the same 'rigid' direction as the first and therefore shows specifically what is so highly criticizable- but at the same time helpful during intercultural training sessions.

For Hofstede, "culture (…) is the collective programming of the mind, which differentiates the members of one group or category from the ones of another" (author's translation from Hofstede 2006: 4). The 'mental programming' of the person, however, does not mean that humans are programmed in the same way that computers are, but rather that people's actions and beliefs are predetermined by their individual cultural 'software' with which they grew up. This software indicates "(…) what reactions are most likely and most coherent" in a given social context (author's translation from Hofstede 2006: 3). According to Hofstede, this software is neither fixed nor static and the individual can alter his or her reaction through internal reflection or external training.

Both of the above mentioned conceptions of culture, and especially the second one, suggest that one can probably predict some of the behaviors of members of different national cultures, and that it is possible to analyze interpersonal misunderstandings along certain 'cultural dimensions' (Roth 2006: 123). It follows from this stream of thought that all members of one (national) culture are equally culturally predisposed, and that one can therefore represent and generalize these individuals through a cultural account of a nation, be it the cultural other or the own self. Any differences are ignored and each nation can be seen as a rather homogeneous mass. A second deduction from this view on culture is the idea that individuals create a division of 'us' and 'them' in their heads. This leads to an implicit 'hostile' understanding of the other when at the same time one sees the own culture as the only natural and 'right' one (Said1 2003: 45).

These rather rigid understandings of culture certainly have some highly criticizable points. However, simplifying culture and seeing it as something that is fixed allows not only for an easy instruction of the concept in work groups or training sessions, where time is usually much to short and the participants need to understand at least the most fundamental ideas of the concept, but it also allows for the possibility of representing a cultural group (in this case a nation) along general cultural dimension axes on which each culture holds a specific score value. This incorporation of the fixed concepts of culture will be presented in more detail in a later part of this work, when taking a glance at the stereotypical representations of India through the cultural dimensions approach by Hofstede. Generally speaking, this simplified fixation of the concept of culture is necessary to be applied in a work context when a basic understanding is the goal; it would be certainly more desirable, however, to attend to the more complex concept and convey a complete understanding to the participants, especially when they stay together for a longer period of time or already have some previous knowledge.

The negative aspects of this 'static' model of culture are easily recognizable, though. According to Roth, these definitions "(…) trust the generalizing images of 'national cultures' too much and make understanding more complex situations - i.e. in multicultural societies - just hardly or not at all graspable" (author's translation from Roth 2006: 123).

Especially today where we are living in a 'globalized world', which is characterized by "(…) ways of meddling with other people's environments, from the destruction of rain forests and the intercontinental dumping of toxic wastes to global warming, (…) [and to] the proliferation of media technologies [which] allows their ideas, and the tangible shapes which they [the media] give them, [to] circulate without much regard for distance" (Hannerz 1996: 17), people and cultures are not bound to a specific location anymore - which by the way they never actually were. But now more than ever, they are increasingly interwoven through the increased mobility of air transportation, the international division of labor and the exchange of 1 Said, a long-time professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues in his influential book Orientalism that people look at the 'other' through their own eyes, and tend to judge alien cultures by their own culture's standards, thereby applying a form of supremacy over it (adapted from The Hudson Review, Winter 2002).ideas through media technology around the world. So is the big Hollywood movie production for example, not only visible in the United States, but also in Germany and across great parts of South America and the rest of the world, and it is shaping the idea of what is a desirable way of life through the creation of idealized images, dreams and goals on its way.

Additionally, Appadurai (2000) argues a slightly different point in his book "Modernity at Large". In his eyes, the understanding of culture has evolved "(…) from culture as a substance to culture as the dimension of difference, to culture as group identity based on difference, to culture as the process of naturalizing a subset of differences that have been mobilized to articulate group identity" (2000: 15). In its newest form of understanding, therefore, culture has become a form of pursuing rather actively a representation of the self. In this context, one needs to refer to the concept of agency (Appadurai 2000: 7; Sax 2006: 473) when wanting to examine the matter more deeply. Examples of agency include "housewives reading romances and soap operas as part of their efforts to construct their own lives" (Appadurai 2000: 7), or business-men using the newest technical device in order to display their occupational importance and personal "up-to-dateness". In short, it is the active intervention and design of one's own life. For Appadurai, the concept of culture becomes thus even more diffuse and open to change: "(…) Culture becomes less what Pierre Bourdieu would have called habitus (a tacit realm of reproducible practices and dispositions) and more an arena for conscious choice, justification, and representation, the latter often to multiple and spatially dislocated audiences" (2000: 44). But besides this 'free will', agency may also contain some form of 'resistance' and 'the ability to transform the world' (Sax 2006: 474). This can mean a woman resisting patriarchal structures or a man being reluctant to his deeply religious family background.

To combine these concepts and developments, the perception of the culture concept evolves due to an increasing loss of the uniformity of group identity toward an image of the 'complex society'. According to Augé, Appadurai, Hannerz and Barth, the "spread and diversity of positions as well as the perspectives (constructions) of meanings that are linked to the social position of the actor" are becoming central in researching cultural concepts (author's translation of Kreff 2003: 147). The authors suggest seeing culture as "fluid, volatile and unevenly distributed globally across individuals, subcultures and societies" (author's translation of Kreff 2003: 148). The implication of this is that cultural fields cannot really be described by clear-cut cultural attributions or dimensions. Rather the fluidity, complexity and multi-faceted diversity of culture must be taken into account, in which symbols, images and subjective interpretations have high standing, and where the sharp territorially and linguistically created borders are replaced by "(…) producing in high intensity new, quick changing, mostly imaginary borders " (author's translation from Roth 2996: 120 & 123).

This broader concept of culture has several implications when working and facilitating the intercultural group and its development. As a starting point, the 'rigid' view of the culture concept, which sees certain cultural traits as attributable to a specific group and, more importantly, to a certain geographical area, can be helpful in the beginning stages of working with international group participants. As some of them might not have experiences with the culture concept at all, a simple and easy to use definition is very helpful when introducing the idea. The 'iceberg' model (which explains culture in a form where some behaviors can be seen as they go on above the figurative water level, but with most of the action and underlying explanations hidden by the water) is certainly a good way of explaining the 'rigid' culture concept. However, depending on the context, duration, aim and learning demand of the group, the second, 'fluid' concept of culture would be very helpful in understanding the cultural other more deeply (Roth 2006: 124). Some authors refer in this context to the 'backpack' metaphor; the backpack that one constantly carries around, but may take out and apply, distort or add new cultural items to the pack (Hogan 2007: 139; Roth 2006: 124). Stated differently by Hannerz, he sees the 'fluid' concept as "(…) a pool of culture (…) [in which] individuals or different kinds of collectivities come to assemble their particular repertoires from this pool" (Hannerz 1996: 48). In this line of thought, it is important to get the participants to start seeing people as agents who "have their habitats of meanings and meaningful forms; their own working perspectives, with horizons perhaps drawn variously far away" (Hannerz 1996: 49), rather than being totally subdued by and through the way one has been brought up in a regional area.

By using the images presented by the cultural dimensions and therefore by temporarily accepting the 'static' concept, and by adding the stereotypical assumptions which are portrayed by the literature about India, it is in my eyes possible to start engaging the group members in a discussion about these 'rigid' images, with the aim of understanding the differences of cultures. As the discussion and interaction process of the individuals is proceeding however, one needs to facilitate the turn of understanding from this rigid view, with "(…) an emphasis on boundedness and difference", to a deeper understanding and the 'fluid' concept of culture, which again can be seen rather like a "habitat of meaning" (Hannerz 1996: 23). It has to be added, that these two concepts, while standing in no contradiction to each other (Roth 2006: 124), convey different and additional views on how to explain the world, and both should find their way into the intercultural group work.

In this work and specifically in the last chapter, I will lay out how to turn the theoretical insights into practical applications.

2.4. On the hierarchy of needs and cultural safety in intercultural groups

After having found that the original definition of culture as a 'fixed thing' is helpful for inexperienced groups or as a starting point, and the more 'fluid' and procedural definition is very helpful when going deeper into the subject, it is important to spend a few words on the issue of basic human needs and cultural safety. These two aspects are necessary in order to ensure that the participants are not preoccupied with other stress points, such as food or drink and feel safe in the group situation, so that they are free to focus their energies on interpersonal dynamics.

Starting to address the cultural differences in a group may be something very critical and sensitive for some group members, as they might not be comfortable with sharing their very personal ways of reacting, or may just feel unfamiliar with the situation and unsure of how to engage with others in the group. It is therefore essential to watch out for such problems and to pre-emptively create 'cultural safety'. As a first step, however, the specific needs of participants have to be closely watched and managed in order to ensure the possibility of the group's smooth development (Hogan 2007: 47).

Maslow introduced the "Hierarchy of Needs" in 1943, which continues to have impact on current theory. In his work, he states that "the classification of basic needs is in part an attempt to account for this unity behind the apparent diversity from culture to culture" (Malsow 1943: 390). In other words, there are certain basic human needs that are fundamental and the same in every culture - like shelter, despite different manifestations due to cultural influences, such as the way the 'house' may look like. For Maslow, these needs consist of physical safety, security, love and belongingness, self-esteem, and self-realization needs. These needs are in hierarchical order, meaning that each need must be met before one can start to address the need above it. In order to be able to become motivated by the highest need of 'self-fulfillment', as figure 1 shows, all underlying needs have to be taken care of first.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

(Figure 1: from, on 9th April 2009)

There are other theories on motivation and the inspiration of group members, such as the extrinsic and intrinsic motivational factors developed by Herzberg or expectancy theories developed by Lawler or Vroom (see Adler 2008: 185ff). While the former is associated with motivation coming either from the environment surrounding the job or the job itself, in the later people are driven by the future results of their proposed actions. However, it is not within the scope of this work to assess the validity of differering motivational theories. Rather, my intention is to draw attention to a breadth of different needs that participants may identify with, and to suggest that each need may have its specific place during the group development process. Ensuring, for example, the basic needs of warmth and food as the group starts to sit down will likely enable the group to move higher in the needs pyramid as the group gets to know each other better. In alternative theories about needs such as the one from Herzberg the intrinsic motivation of participants might be inspired by encouraging the value of trying, or rewarding participants extrinsically for active participation in the process.

Along with providing for the group members' personal needs, there is also a need to establish shared 'cultural safety'. Hogan uses the words of Williams, who defines the term as:

"An environment that is safe for people; where there is no assault, challenge or denial of their identity, of who they are and what they need. It is about shared respect, shared meaning, shared knowledge and experience, of learning, living and working together with dignity, and truly listening."

(Williams in Hogan 2007: 47)

This goal can be achieved by "inviting the participants to generate and agree upon'ground rules' at the beginning of the workshop" (Hogan 2007: 47), which may look something like statements coming from the group members committing to 'listening to one another', 'valuing new ideas' and 'respecting each other'. It is interesting how almost all of these subjects (and others such as 'being on time') usually come up in the first few minutes of a newly established group (author's observation). One wouldn't necessarily expect that youth groups or other work groups would strain themselves to not being late, but as everyone else is also benefiting from these rules, they mostly arrive on time, suggesting that they perceive timeliness as a shared benefit and sign of respect toward each other. In the context of establishing these 'ground rules', it is important to note the need to question and challenge the statements so they don't become hollow expressions, with nobody knowing what to actually understand of the rule, but true meaningful guidelines. A little follow-up inquiry from the facilitator's side may help to clarify how these guidelines are actually supposed to operate in reality (Hogan 2007: 47).

One of the basics for a successful interaction, communication and group building process is getting the participants to openly talk, share ideas and opinions, challenge and support each other during a discussion, and generally participate in the group work (Podsiadlowski 2004: 107). Only if the above mentioned cultural safety is established this can be ensured. However, Hogan notes that being politically correct isn't necessarily possible all of the time, and that [open communication] "(…) may be[come] risky and messy at times," and also that "something that feels 'safe' for one person may not feel 'safe' for another" (Hogan 2007: 48). This observation raises a difficult point, as cultural topics (see figure 2) are, and should be, in constant unbalance, just like a see-saw. Only through some form of unbalance can the different group members evolve, as they destabilize their current perceptions in order to deal with matters that they might be uncomfortable with. This unbalance however, needs to be carefully weighted and accompanied by the trainer.

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(Figure 2: Balancing cultural safety, from Hogan 2007: 48)

Keeping these foundational aspects in mind when establishing to work on the issue of cultural differences in a group can help to improve the long term well being of all members. However, there is no such thing as a recipe-cookbook on group dynamics, and one has to be flexible in the application of certain measures, e.g. weighing more toward cultural sensitivity when the group needs it, or really getting 'down and dirty' and to the critical point, when the group is getting along very well. Adler summarizes this nicely: "Although some principles of leadership, motivation, and decision making apply almost everywhere, the ways in which leaders adapt them to local conditions and work situations determine their ultimate success or failure" (2008: 157). There are many other aspects that may be interesting in this context, such as intercultural leadership (see i.e. Brain & Lewis 2004) or a deeper and more business oriented look at team incentives (i.e. in Hoffman & Rogelberg 1998).

2.5. Intercultural Communication

"One cannot not communicate"

- Paul Watzlawick

As the communication process moves from a personal to an international and intercultural level, the probability for miscommunication increases enormously (Ferraro 1998: 40). Therefore, it is very helpful and necessary to be aware of some of the underlying principles and theories explaining intercultural communication, so as to be able to incorporate these insights into the interaction process with others.

As an example, I will present a personal anecdote from an intercultural group experience: I was working with a group of six other trainers (One Portuguese woman, one woman from Romania studying at Oxford, one woman from Sweden, one man from Finland,another man from Romania and myself) on an overnight project, designing a training workshop for a group of about 30 others about creating self-confidence. It was both an exciting and horrible experience because we played part in a clear situation of cultural misunderstanding. The situation dealt with the design of a workshop for the following day and we had to get it done during the night. As it got later and later, our nerves became tenser and our willingness to cooperate with one another sank. We were all quite eager to get the final design ready to go, so we could go to bed as soon as possible. Despite this, we were all really committed to doing a very good job. During the debate about the final design of the workshop and about which games to include and how to do them, the man from Romania didn't agree with the group, stated that he was too tired to do anything and therefore stopped engaging himself in any further discussion about the procedure. As a result of his lacking involvement he was included in the final design only with a very short part. The next day when holding the workshop, we were happy with the design and the implementation and reaction of the participants. We brought the training to an end in a very calm, relaxing and spiritual way. In our eyes the training was therefore over. But in the eyes of the Romanian man, it wasn't. He ended up adding his own, unplanned for part after our official end. The part which he added and held - as we didn't stop him during his delivery, as this would have caused great confusion - was considered quite inappropriate by all of us other trainers, as it had ripped the participants from the very calm ending back onto something very energetic and loud. It was in my (and some others') opinion furthermore very inappropriate as it included references to war and the walk of soldiers during war. I personally felt very uncomfortable as this reminded me of WWII and Germany's position in this time.

After the workshop was over, all of us other trainers felt furious, deeply frustrated, sad or very puzzled. The problem was largely that his additional game was not talked about with the group. The actual idea behind the added activity had value, but would have been more reasonable with different timing and small alterations, in my eyes. During the planning session we tried to communicate about his and our wishes, wants, hopes, desires and fears for the next day, but we were somehow only able to include some of his perspective into the design. Part of the misunderstanding that took place in our group certainly was in our inability to include him and combine his ideas with ours. His reaction was to opt out of the group, and present his own activities independently of ours, thus expressing his dissent. In looking ahead to figure 3 in this section, it becomes apparent that there were different ways in which this situation was deteriorating, and there are choices that we could have made differently in order to solve the problem of our miscommunication.

When dealing with an intercultural group the above described situation is certainly one of the worst case scenarios. This anecdote suggests that one has to continually keep in mind the different ways that intercultural communication occurs and works. In this context, McDaniel et al. (2007: 7) define 'intercultural communication' as a process that "(…) occurs whenever a message produced in one culture must be processed in another culture". In other words, it "(…) can best be understood as cultural variance in the perception of social objects and events" (Samovar & Porter 1976: 4). In this regard, one is also immediately reminded of Geertz's definition of culture, in which he referred to the difference in 'patterns of meaning' that culture withholds. These patterns are included not only in the way one is brought up and socialized in a cultural group, but are furthermore mostly unconscious factors - even when deciding 'freely' how to act out one's agency. In a group with multicultural participants, differences in meaning are therefore likely to occur.

However, knowing about intercultural communication and learning about how and why we misunderstand each other can temper problems before they even arise (Samovar et al. 2007: 2). Therefore, creating an understanding of the basic concepts of intercultural communication is a necessary element in the process of understanding the cultural other during a group or team process. Ferraro summarizes this nicely:

"If communication between people from different cultures is to be successful, each party must understand the cultural assumptions - or cultural starting points - of the other. Unfortunately, our own values, the result of cultural conditioning, are so much a part of our consciousness that we frequently fail to acknowledge their existence and consequently fail to understand that they may not be shared by people from other cultures. (…) It is necessary to recognize the cultural influences on our own thinking and how they conform to or contrast with, those of culturally different people."

(Ferraro 1998: 87).

This quote expresses in another way what Merleau-Ponty had analyzed philosophically already in 1966. Apart from the cultural conditioning, he analyzed how we see the world and how we have embodied a way of how to see the world. Merleau-Ponty states that "a true and exact world originates initially in the perception" (author's translation from Merleau-Ponty 1966: 77); and distancing himself from this constructivist view, he continues in a more phenomenological stance: "If I would want to express the experience of perception in all precision, I would have to say, that one experiences in me, not, that I experience" (author's translation from Merleau-Ponty 1966: 253). In this line of thought there is no such thing as an absolute truth of how things are, but rather the truth that we have embodied through our cultural upbringing. It is the situation that we are in, which alters out perception of it, partly because of our own influence on the situation and partly because of our previous experience and how we have dealt with a similar situation in the past.

This becomes especially important when we acknowledge that intercultural communication involves not only verbal messages and the interpretation of those, but also nonverbal behavior such as body language. Samovar & Porter tell us that the nonverbal aspects of communication cannot be overlooked. They state that "we rely on nonverbal cues to help interpret verbal cues [and] when we detect incongruencies between the verbal and the nonverbal, we tend to assign greater credibility to the nonverbal" (Samovar & Porter 1976: 22).

An example of this would be the much described 'head-wobble' in India. This characteristic movement of the head from side to side looks to the inexperienced Western eye something like a "no", but may mean many things in the Indian context2. It can mean something like "yes, certainly" or it can be just an expression of "okay, I hear what you are saying" (Kolanad 1994: 114), among many other things. It is therefore essential to pay close attention to the verbal and non-verbal ways information is communicated, and if unsure, to ask for clarification. Difficult as this might already be, out unknowingness might even go as far as to where we don't even know what we are ignorant of. This is even more so the case when thinking back to Appadurai's concept of culture, in which agency, or the 'own conscious choice,' is an essential element. For example, someone might have picked up some nonverbal element and tried to apply it to an audience, where it is assumed to be appropriate. If it doesn't fit to the context, however, such an action might cause great confusion in the 'listeners' interpretation.

What can be done to improve the communication process? To this purpose I will present what goes on during the communication process in general, and then in the intercultural communication process in particular.

As already stated above, communication, and intercultural communication in particular, deals with the exchange of information packages which are delivered from a sender to a receiver through some sort of channel. This package or message is then interpreted by the receiver and an understanding in some form of feedback is sent back to the original sender. In this dynamic process, both verbal and nonverbal human behavior is being perceived and responded to (Samovar & Porter 1976: 5). Figure 3 shows this communication interaction process in a schematic.


Excerpt out of 92 pages


Valuing and incorporating cultural differences in multicultural groups
An example of working with Indian cultural counterparts
University of Heidelberg  (Verhaltens- und Empirische Kulturwissenschaften Institut für Ethnologie)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
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1229 KB
interkulturell, intercultural, Gruppen, groups, Team, Teamarbeit, Zusammenarbeit, Motivation, Indien, India, multikulturell, multicultural
Quote paper
Martin Sebastian Scheuplein (Author), 2009, Valuing and incorporating cultural differences in multicultural groups, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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