Cross-cultural Teaming in a Laboratory

This is a guest blog post written by Amy Prunuske and Katie Nemeth. Their biographies follow the text.

lab-1825276The laboratory is a multicultural environment that stimulates innovation but also contributes to misunderstandings. Scientists often have formal training in research techniques, but rarely in communication, and particularly not in cross-cultural communication.

In the University of Wisconsin biochemistry laboratory in which Amy did her research training, there were lab mates from Korea, Germany, Japan, India, and Poland, as well as the USA. This diversity is vital for the development of new ideas, but it can also create communication challenges. Many of the undergraduates in the US Midwest come to the university with minimal exposure to people from different backgrounds, so it is important to help them understand that different cultures have differing verbal and nonverbal rules mediating social interactions.

During Katie’s postdoctoral training, she participated in many active learning and training workshops. While diversity and inclusivity were part of the lesson designs, she wondered if and how students could become actively mindful of the role that culture plays in a group setting. Seeking out ideas, she participated in non-science workshops and discovered Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. After finding this vital missing link, Katie worked with Amy to add the experiential learning component to various courses and groups in the biology department.

We have found that Ecotonos is an amazing way to expose scientists to the existence of cultural differences and how to use them as assets. As part of the activity, students are divided into three monocultural groups: Delphenius, Zante, and Aquila—each with a unique set of cultural characteristics. Ecotonos comes with ten sets of rule cards, three case studies and three different tasks, so students can play the game repeatedly and each time it’s different. Click any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.

In our work with the biology students, we have them practice their new cultural rules by creating a flag that represents the values of their culture (see pictures). The students in the monocultural groups enjoy taking on these new characteristics, with some finding it easy and others finding it challenging to behave in new ways.

After the monocultural work, participants are re-sorted into multicultural groups of different structures: minority-majority, joint venture with balanced populations, and diverse membership with representatives of all three cultures. In their multicultural groups, we have them rank the performance of three hypothetical workers, with the three workers demonstrating characteristics similar to one of the three sets of group rules. This exposes the participants to the ways in which we can be biased toward people with behaviors similar to those of our own culture, and allows students to practice getting beyond their biases.

We have used the program as part of the introduction to the biology laboratory, where they will be expected to work in groups, as well as in programs for undergraduates from groups under-represented in the sciences.

Ecotonos is a great ice breaker activity for the students to get to know their classmates, and students often carry forward some of the behaviors learned during the activity, like snapping in approval, as part of creating a new shared culture for their group. Most students find the activity to be fun, and leave it with a much greater appreciation for the challenges of working across cultures.

Here’s a typical student comment: “It was helpful to understand how difficult it might be interacting with a different culture for the first time.” This is an important lesson for scientists, who often believe their discipline is a meritocracy not subject to the biases that are universally found. We are currently measuring the impact of Ecotonos using the cultural intelligence assessment.

We would like to thank Dr. Shelley Smith for introducing Ecotonos to us.  We are grateful for the time she took to share her expertise in running the activity.

Amy Prunskee is a Faculty Curriculum Program Manager and Associate Professor of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Medical College of Wisconsin — Central Wisconsin.

Katie Nemeth is an Assistant Professor of the teaching faculty in College of Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, MN.


Study Supports Ecotonos’ Effectiveness


“This study shows that the use of the Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ) and an increase in the development of confidence in cross-cultural encounters.

This legitimates the use of Ecotonos in international business education.

Ecotonos may also be effective in preparing students for overseas internships or study abroad programs… and in multinational corporations and universities as a means to improve the CQ of their management and students.”
—Bücker and Korzilius

Since its publication in 1995, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures has become a classic in the field of intercultural communication competence; it is a go-to resource for corporations, universities and NGOs that require the ability to effectively team across cultures. Two decades of anecdotal evidence strongly support Ecotonos’ usefulness, but it is only recently that management researchers in The Netherlands provided empirical evidence on the simulation’s effectiveness.


Three of the five generations of Ecotonos; compact Fifth Edition on the right.

Developing cultural intelligence: assessing the effect of the Ecotonos cultural simulation game for international business students,” a study published in The International Journal of Human Resource Management (Vol. 26, No. 15, 1995-2014) by Joost JLE Bücker and Hubert Korzilius, found that Ecotonos supports the development of cultural intelligence (CQ), specifically metacognitive, motivational, and behavioral CQ.

Bücker and Korzilius write, “CQ is defined by Earley and Ang (2003) as a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts. It refers to individual capacities which enable one to interact effectively with others from different cultural backgrounds and in different cultural contexts (Brislin, Worthley, & MacNab, 2006). It is the ability to adapt and adjust to one’s environment, and the effective functioning in situations characterized by cultural diversity.”

The research was designed to test the benefits of using Ecotonos as a training method to develop CQ among business students that participate in an international study program, while the researchers also saw applications for corporations and universities. Simulations and role plays “should provide the most suitable opportunity to train someone’s CQ… ECOTONOS (Saphiere, 1995) was created as an attempt to add additional learning goals to those of existing games such as BAFA BAFA and ALBATROSS, by creating simulations that had more complex options.”

The study of 66 students in Toulouse and Nijmegen consisted of an experiment group that engaged in one round of playing Ecotonos, a control group that did not participate in Ecotonos, and the completion of four questionnaires 3-5 weeks apart by members of both groups:

  1. CQS (Ang et al, 2007)
  2. Cross-cultural Communication Effectiveness (adapted from Hammer, Gudykunst & Wiseman, 1978)
  3. Social Desirability Scales (Kleumper, 2008)
  4. New Self-Efficacy Scale (Chen, Gulley and Eden, 2001)

Bücker and Korzilius note the importance of their study:

“Although it has been claimed that simulation games may give positive outcomes, such as more familiarity with people different from ourselves in terms of gender or ethnicity, such games may also reinforce prejudices. Burgstahler and Doe (2006) claim that ‘In all types of simulations there is a risk of long-lasting unintended negative results’ (p. 9).

An evaluation of an intercultural communications simulation called BAFA BAFA (Shirts, 1973) found evidence of a positive change in enthusiasm for learning, an intended result, and an increased ethnocentrism, an unintended result (Bruschke, Gartner, & Seiter, 1993). The simulated experience triggered negative and reactionary attitudes toward other cultures, and did not allow for more positive changes that might come from extended interaction across cultures (Bruschke et al., 1993).

The two simulation games of Bafa Bafa and Ecotonos are different. Whereas in the Bafa Bafa game participants are invited to simulate explicit stated cultural behavior, in the Ecotonos game participants have more freedom to create their own culture. This different way of prescribing behavior in the two games may have implications for the degree of prejudice after the simulation.”

The researchers found that “Ecotonos increases the ability to reflect on cross-cultural interactions, and stimulates interest in intercultural behavior and practicing cross-cultural relevant behavior.”


A concern that came out of the study is that researchers found “there is more understanding and comfort in student interactions, but there is not more progress in the joint project result. For undergraduate business students, feeling comfortable in intercultural situations and becoming interested in other students’ cultural backgrounds is already a great win; it stimulates intercultural learning by opening up students’ mindsets in the international class. For more mature graduate students, extra strategic learning should be expected during the simulation game, in terms of effectiveness of their cross-cultural behavior and effectuating certain predefined targets in their communication. This might be developed by stimulating the competitive side of the role of the participants in the simulation game.”

I would posit that playing Ecotonos multiple times will enable students to practice and improve their collaborative abilities; this is, after all, how the game is designed to be used. A different task or case study can be used each time the game is played, and different rule cards as well, making the play unique each time.

A second way for participants to improve their collaboration skills is for facilitators to urge them to choose one behavior they would like to demonstrate during the simulation. Participants should focus on that. During game play, when collaboration all too frequently breaks down, facilitators can interrupt play to remind players to practice the skill they have previously chosen. Both of these interventions are described in the Ecotonos Manual, 5th Edition, 2016.

I would like to thank both researchers for this work, and express my hope that they will continue with further studies on this topic.

If you haven’t yet conducted Ecotonos with your students, trainees or learners, what are you waiting for? Purchase your copy today. If you have an older copy, you may want to update; the fifth edition has explanations of a whole lot of how-to and underlying theory that you may be missing from earlier versions.

Ecotonos: Simulación Intercultural en una Clase de Negociación en Colombia

Sixth semester students (juniors) David, Lina, Gabriela and Ximena helped facilitate the simulation

Sixth semester students (juniors) David, Lina, Gabriela y Ximena helped facilitate the simulation

Ecotonos: An Intercultural Simulation in a Negotiation Class in Colombia

La Universidad Sergio Arboleda in Bogotá, Colombia, recently utilized Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures for the third time in its International Negotiation class. The professor, Fernando Parrado, gave four of his experienced students the opportunity to act as co-facilitators, and they learned so much from the experience. Below is their report.

Translation to English by Dianne Hofner Saphiere follows the Spanish original.


Las Águilas estaban conformadas por un grupo total de diez estudiantes, por lo que en primera estancia se repartieron las fichas de valores a cada uno de los integrantes. Los valores e acciones de las Águilas eran:

  • Tú crees que es grosero expresar tu propia opinión demasiado fuerte. Tú prefieres preguntar la opinión de los otros antes de afirmar la tuya y frecuentemente ilustras con ejemplos los puntos que los demás han dado.
  • Cuando una persona te dice algo que tú has escuchado antes, tú aplaudes. Miras sobre la cabeza de las personas cuando deseas demostrarles que estas en desacuerdo.
  • Para entender completamente que está diciendo alguien, tú interrumpes, aclaras y resumes.
  • Tú crees que todo se mueve a su propio ritmo y que el tiempo es artificial. No te das prisa con las decisiones o tareas sino que prefieres que esta se desenvuelva. Los relojes o tiempos de referencia te hacen sentir incómodo.
  • En discusiones tu estas más cómodo parado o sentado al menos a un brazo de distancia de las otras personas. El contacto físico es extremadamente incómodo para ti.

Después de entendidos y discutidos los comportamientos a seguir por las Águilas, se realiza la creación del mito por parte de todo el grupo. Los miembros fueron muy creativos y relacionaron los valores con el nombre del grupo (las Águilas), determinando así que se habían independizado hace poco tiempo, y que además su Dios era el águila, lo que determinaba su necesidad de espacio, no contacto físico, y comportamiento sumiso ante la opinión de los demás.


Posteriormente se inició la construcción de los puentes. Los miembros decidieron recurrir a otros recursos, además de los ya otorgados por los facilitadores, como sus sacos.

Luego se realizó la mezcla de los participantes. Las Águilas fueron determinadas a ser un Joint Venture, por lo que cinco participantes del grupo de los Zantes se unieron a las Águilas, de la misma manera que cinco integrantes se fueron a los Delfines y a los Zantes. Dado así el grupo quedo conformado por cinco Águilas y cinco Zantes. La cultura de los Zantes era absolutamente opuesta por lo que la continuación del puente fue un reto, mas sin embargo a pesar de las diferencias, todos participaron activamente y sacaron adelante el proyecto.

A continuación se realizó la presentación del mito por parte de uno de los participantes, y luego se realizó la retroalimentación de la cual el grupo tuvo las siguientes conclusiones:

Los elementos que ayudaron tener mayor efectividad y colaboración entre las dos culturas:

  • Ambas culturas saben escuchar.
  • Ambas culturas trabajan en grupo con un fin común.
  • A pesar de la diferencia cultural, había tolerancia lo que no genero conflictos, por lo que el trabajo en equipo fue flexible.

Los elementos que impidieron tener mayor efectividad y colaboración entre las dos culturas:

  • La cultura de las Águilas era muy flexible al tiempo, por lo cual el tiempo no fue aprovechado de manera efectiva. “El tiempo vale oro”.
  • La diferencia y falta de conocimiento del lenguaje verbal y corporal de cada una de las otras culturas
  • La diferencia en la afectividad y contacto físico por parte de cada una de las culturas

Las Águilas plantearon tres estrategias que hubieran ayudado a los grupos a entenderse mejor y utilizar las habilidades de cada uno de los miembros fueron:

  • Tener un contacto previo con la otra cultura, para entender y comprender los diferentes comportamientos.
  • Reemplazar el lenguaje corporal por lenguaje verbal, para lograr un mayor entendimiento.
  • Tener clara la tarea a realizar para poder planificar y realizar de manera correcta.
  • Implementar la división del trabajo.

Por último el grupo realizo el siguiente mapa de procesos para evidenciar el proceso vivido.



La personalidad de los Delfines los describe como una cultura apartada que no les gusta tener contacto con otras culturas, aparte de esto siempre quieren tener siempre la razón motivo por el cual cuando van a comunicarse con otros es más difícil llegar a un acuerdo, en el trabajo se evidencio cuando hubo cambios de culturas que era complicado llegar a aportar algo a esta cultura.

Los Delfines estaban armando su puente, todos los integrantes tenían un cargo y así fueron armando su puente, todos se entendían bien y cuando no estaban de acuerdo lo hablaban y rápidamente llegaban a un acuerdo para beneficiarse todos, entre la cultura nunca hubo un problema o discusiones por las decisiones tomadas.


Cuando las dos Águilas intervinieron este grupo para continuar armando el puente pero como había mayoría de Delfines se evidencio que las Águilas quedaron de lado discriminadas, ya que los Delfines no les gusta tener interacción con otras culturas, es claro que cuando hay una mayoría vs minoría siempre la mayoría va a tomar las decisiones y la minoría va a tener que adaptarse a estas decisiones.

En el momento en el que a los grupos se les puso a mirar las fortalezas y debilidades de la interacción con otras culturas los Delfines se dieron cuenta que las fortalezas que esto trajo para armar el puente fue que tanto las Águilas como los Delfines tenían un tiempo flexible el cual hizo que ninguno tuviera un choque ahí, también los Delfines debieron reconocer el trabajo de otra cultura que quiso intervenir para ayudarlos y por ultimo tuvieron que tener respeto y tolerancia hacia las Águilas, no hay mejor comunicación que saber hablar pero más importante es saber escuchar.


Las debilidades que los Delfines encontraron al interactuar con las dos Águilas que llegaron al grupo fue que había falta de comunicación ya que las dos culturas se comunicaban de forma diferente, además se notaba un impedimento entre las dos culturas ya que la distancia era muy notable. Sin embargo, pudieron armar el puente y al finalizar el logro fue compartido entre Águilas y Delfines.



En el juego de simulación intercultural el grupo tres era el grupo de los Zantes, el cual estaba conformado por diez integrantes.

La primera actividad que se realizo fue escoger algunas cartas de reglas culturales y con estas se creó una nueva cultura con las acciones dados, para ello tenían que crear un mito explicando cómo nació la cultura. Las que escogimos fueron las de color naranja las cuales representan los gestos y el contacto con los ojos (hacer sonar nuestros dedos y mirar fijamente), azul clara que eran los estilos de escucha (sabían escuchar y hablan cuando el otro terminaba), el color rosado representa contacto (se caracterizaban los Zantes porque les gustaba el contacto con los demás), realizaban gestos mientras hablan para ayudar a los otros a entender, y por ultimo estaba la carta beige que era la orientación al tiempo (eran muy rigurosos con el tiempo, para ellos este valía oro). En el desarrollo de esta primera actividad se pudo notar que dentro del grupo había integrantes con personalidades muy distintas, ya que algunos estaban muy concentrados en el juego y muy participativos, mientras que otros miembros del grupo solo estaban escuchando y no aportaban ideas sino al contrario hacen lo que otros compañeros decían. Con el tiempo todos los integrantes empezaron a practicar sus características culturales respectivas y finalmente para esta actividad trabajaron muy bien porque todos se familiarizaron con sus valores (que eran iguales) por lo cual no existió ningún conflicto.


La segunda actividad que se realizo fue la de crear un puente con unos materiales que los monitores suministramos al grupo, el puente debía ser innovador y confortable. Al comenzar el puente el grupo trabajo muy bien ya que todos se escuchaban y trabajaban efectivamente para poder realizar un buen trabajo, a cada instante se percibían los valores del grupo porque constantemente los estaban practicando y utilizando para realizar su trabajo. Cuando ya tenían la mitad del puente el grupo fue dividido y a los Zantes llegaron integrantes de los Delfines y de las Águilas, con los cuales se pudo evidenciar el impacto cultural de estos nuevos integrantes ya que tenían características totalmente distintas, algunos llegaron a ser ofensivos, aplaudían constantemente, no les gustaba el contacto, todos tenían sus características culturales muy marcadas y distintas lo cual produjo que se crearan conflictos. Cuando los miembros de los Delfines y de las Águilas intervinieron en la creación del puente se pudo notar que en un principio cambiaron drásticamente la estructura del puente, construyeron algo totalmente distinto a lo que habían realizado los Zantes, pero con el tiempo esta estructura se volvía a acoplar un poco a lo que fue la de los Zantes y el grupo multicultural pudo crear un excelente puente. Los jugadores pudieron comprender el impacto que la cultura tiene en cada una de sus vidas.

Los juegos anteriores permitieron comprender al grupo el impacto que tiene la cultura, por esto es indispensable que a la hora de negociar se conozca y además se entienda la cultura con la que se va a negociar para tener la capacidad de resolver problemas y para trabajar de manera efectiva. Y finalmente la conclusión más importante es que hay que aprender a manejar nuestras conductas y valores a la hora de negociar con personas que tengan diferencias culturales.



En conclusión esta actividad a los 4 monitores fue muy productiva. Entendimos las diferencias culturales con unas simples actividades que nos dan un ejemplo de cómo serian una negociación o trabajo en equipo con miembros de otros países, nos enseño como escuchar y ser de mente abierta siempre para la negociación aprender lo mejor del otro y siempre respetar a los demás.


The Aguilas were a group of ten students, each given rule cards. The values and actions on the Aguila cards were:

  • You believe it is rude to express your opinions too strongly. You prefer to question others’ opinions before sharing your own, and you frequently affirm the points others have made by offering examples.
  • When someone tells you something you’ve heard before, you clap. You look above the person’s head when you wish to demonstrate disagreement.
  • To understand more fully what someone is saying, you interrupt, clarify and summarize.
  • You believe that things move according to their own rhythm, and that time is artificial. You don’t hurry decisions or tasks and rather prefer that they unfold. Clocks and references to time make you uncomfortable.
  • In discussions you are more comfortable standing or sitting at least an arm’s length away from others. Physical contact is extremely uncomfortable for you.

After discussing and understanding the behaviors to follow, the Aguilas created their myth. The members were very creative and related their values with the name of the group, determining that they became independent fairly recently, and that their god was the eagle, which determined their need for space, no physical contact, and submissiveness to the opinions of others.

Next they began the construction of the bridge. The members decided to use other resources in addition to those provided by the facilitators.

After building for a while, participants were mixed. Five Aguilas left to join the Delfins and the Zantes. The remaining Aguilas were joined by five Zante participants, forming a Joint Venture group of five Zanteans and five Aguilas. The culture of the Zantes was absolutely opposite to that of the Aguilas, so the joint bridge building was quite a challenge. Despite the differences, however, everyone participated actively and took the project forward.

Upon concluding the simulation the participants presented their creation myth, and then conducted a debriefing discussion that led to the following conclusions:

The elements that helped the mixed group of two cultures to be more effective and collaborative were:

  • Each culture’s members knew how to listen.
  • Members of both cultures worked in groups to a common purpose.
  • Despite the cultural differences, there was tolerance, and participants did not generate conflict, so the group work was flexible.

The elements that impeded effectiveness and collaboration between the two cultures were:

  • The Aguila culture was very flexible with time, which meant that time was not used in an effective manner. “Time is gold.”
  • Differences in and lack of knowledge of verbal and body language of the different culture
  • Difference in affection and physical contact in each of the cultures

Group members came up with three strategies that would have helped them understand each other better and utilize the abilities of each of the members of the mixed culture:

  • Have previous contact with the other culture, in order to understand the different behaviors.
  • Replace body language with verbal language, in order to have better understanding.
  • Keep the task clearly in mind in order to plan and perform it correctly.
  • Implement a division of labor.

Finally, the group created the following process map illustrating the process they experienced:


The personality of the Delfins can be described as that of a secluded culture that doesn’t like to have contact with other cultures. Apart from this, they always want to be right when they communicate with others, making it difficult to come to an agreement. This was evident in the work: when there was a change of cultures it was difficult to contribute anything to this culture.

The Delfins were assembling their bridge, all of its members had their job and were working to build the bridge, and everyone understood each other well. When they disagreed they spoke and quickly reached an agreement that would benefit everyone. Within the culture there was not a problem or discussion of the decisions made.

When the two Aguilas joined the group to continue assembling the bridge, since there were a majority of Delfins, you could see the Aguilas were a bit left out and discriminated against, as Delfins don’t like to interact with other cultures. It was clear that with the majority and minority in this group, the majority made decisions and the minority had to adapt itself to those decisions.

When the group members reflected on their strengths and weaknesses interacting with other cultures, the Delfins realized that the strengths for building the bridge included that both the Aguilas and the Delfins had a flexible sense of time, so there was no problem there. Also, the Delfins needed to acknowledge the work of the other culture, to have respect and tolerance for the Aguilas and realize that they wanted to help, that there is no better way to communicate than to know how to speak but even more to know how to listen.

The weaknesses that the Delfins encountered when interacting with the two Aguilas who arrived to the group were that there was a lack of communication due to the fact that the two cultures communicated in a different form, in addition another impediment between the two cultures was that the distance was very notable. Nevertheless, they were able to build the bridge and the accomplishment was shared between the Aguilas and the Delfins.


In the intercultural simulation, the third group was the Zantes, composed of ten members.

The first activity was to choose cultural rule cards to create a new culture with the actions described on them. In order to do that, the members needed to use the rules to author a myth about how the culture was born. The rules chosen included the orange color—gestures and eye contact (snap one’s fingers and stare), light blue — listening style (listen closely and speak only when the other has finished), pink—representing touch (this characterized the Zantes because they loved touching others), gesticulating while talking in order to help others understand, and the last was the beige card—time orientation (very rigorous with time, as time is golden). During this first activity it was noteworthy that there were members of the group with very distinct personalities. Some concentrated on the game and were very participatory, others in the group were only listening and rather than contribute ideas they did what the others said. With time the group members began practicing their cultural characteristics and finally they worked together very well, because everyone was familiar with their values (they were all equal) and there was no conflict.

The second activity the group realized was to create a bridge with some materials that the facilitators gave the group. The bridge needed to be innovative and aesthetically pleasing. When beginning the bridge the group worked very well together; everyone listened to one another and they worked effectively to complete the work. At each moment one could perceive the values of the group because they were constantly practicing and utilizing them during their work. When they already had half the bridge built, the group was divided and some Delfins and Aguilas joined the Zantes. At this point the cultural impact was evident; some arrived offensively—they clapped constantly, they didn’t like touching others—everyone had cultural characteristics that were very marked and distinct and that created conflicts. When the members of the Delfins and the Aguilas joined the creation of the bridge, it was noted that at one point the structure of the bridge changed drastically; they constructed something completely distinct from what the Zantes had originally been building. However, with time the structure returned to something similar to what the Zantes had intended, and the multicultural group was able to create an excellent bridge. The players were able to understand the impact that culture has on each of their lives.

The simulation permitted group members to understand the impact of culture, and that it is indispensable to recognize and understand culture when negotiating, in order to be able to resolve problems and work in an effective manner. Finally, the most important conclusion is that we need to learn to manage our conduct and values when negotiating with people who are culturally different from us.


In conclusion, this activity was very productive for the four of us as co-facilitators. We understood cultural differences with these simple activities. It provided us an example of how a negotiation or teamwork could be with people from other countries. It taught us how to listen and to maintain an open mind during negotiations, to learn the best of the other and to always respect others.

Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with us, students! Any of our readers who are interested in Ecotonos, you can find more information or order the simulation by clicking here.