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.


The Best-Kept Secret of Successful Teams

4 Phase ModelAlmost every team and community today is diverse in some way or another: gender, age, spirituality, professional training, ethnicity, nationality… While we respect other styles and cultures, most of us still get stuck at some point where we say, “OK, we’re different; now how do we work (or live) side-by-side? How do we harness our differences as creative assets? At a minimum, how do we simply keep from driving each other crazy?”

We might work with partners who view time as flexible and events as unfolding. This may mean that, to them, deadlines are mutable and subject to change. Meanwhile, we push ourselves and our bodies, working overtime to make sure we honor our commitment to an agreed-upon deadline. While we may respect our colleagues’ view of time management on a theoretical basis, and perhaps envy them their apparently healthy work-life balance, how do we succeed with partners who don’t seem to respect their commitments to deadlines?

Perhaps we have a neighbor or even a waiter at a favorite restaurant who communicates very directly, yet we prefer a bit more indirection, thank you. While we respect their communication style, it can get irritating and try our patience.

Too often we fail to actively seek to bridge differences because we see them as something negative, as something that separates rather than unites us. Yet, by ignoring our differences, by pretending they are not there, we imbue them with great power. Eventually they can get the best of us, surprising us at awkward moments and causing frustration and tension. Our reluctance to address differences may stem from a fear that acknowledging their existence may push us farther apart rather than allowing us to collaborate enjoyably.

So, how do we transform these differences into assets? How do we convert them from something to be denied, hidden, or tamped down, into something to be embraced and used for the good of the organization and the team?

One model that has proven quite useful over the past two decades of use comes from the classic and widely used simulation, Ecotonos: A Simulation for Collaborating Across Cultures. Called the “Four-Phase Model for Task Accomplishment,” this very simple approach guides us to first identify the similarities and differences at play in our interaction, verbally affirm them, spend time understanding them and, finally, explore how to leverage them.

How a specific team leverages similarities and differences will depend on the members of the team and their shared goals and realities. Each team creates its own team culture, ideally based upon and growing out of the first three phases of this Four-Phase Model.

As you can see in the graphic above, the Four-Phase Model is not linear, but rather each phase weaves into and out of the other. For example, understanding may lead to further identifying, or leveraging may lead to added affirmation.

A text description of the Model accompanies Ecotonos and provides further elaboration of the graphic:

  • Perceiving similarities and differences
  • Establishing which differences are divisive and which commonalties unite
  • Creating self-awareness of one’s own strengths and styles
  • Appropriate balancing of the tension between sameness and difference
  • Confirming individual commonalties and differences
  • Substantiating that difference is desirable
  • Legitimizing difference in the eyes of the group
  • Welcoming conflict and paying attention
  • Attempting to understand the other person’s perspective
  • Stepping into the other’s shoes
  • Mirroring/exploring and discovering together
  • Probing for deeper comprehension using various approaches
  • Seeing an issue from several vantage points
  • Defining how team members can contribute to goal accomplishment
  • Agreeing on methods for utilizing team expertise
  • Facilitating the generation of creative solutions
  • Creating a “team” culture
  • Focusing on efficiency and effectiveness

Once people become comfortable with the Identifying Phase, they may perceive the Affirming Phase as something unnecessary, a waste of everyone’s time. “We are all adults. We don’t need to give one another kudos.”

But my extensive experience proves, over and over again, that taking the time and effort to actively engage in the Affirming Phase is well worth the investment. Proceeding more slowly allows the team to accomplish more in less time, so to speak.

Below is one video that illustrates the value of affirmation in our lives. It is pretty long, but you’ll get the idea pretty quickly and I’m confident you’ll enjoy watching it.

The Four-Phase Model is one tool that can powerfully transform conflict into productivity and innovation. And, by the way, don’t forget that you are awesome!


“Most Multicultural Teams are Dominated by One Cultural Group”

Or so claims Jeanne Brett in a recent Harvard Business Review blog post. I will agree that most of the multicultural teams I’ve worked with over the past 28 years have been dominated by a sub-group of members. My guess is that’s the same for most teams, no matter the visible diversity of their composition.

This idea caught my attention, and I also really liked that rather than the usual analogy of talking about multicultural teams as symphony orchestras or likening them to herding cats, Jeanne relates multicultural teams to fusion cuisine. And who doesn’t like fusion cuisine? Way to sell multiculturalism!

“It turns out that fusion teams often … break a large team into smaller subgroups, encourage informal conversations, and thereby get input from previously quiet team members. Eventually, the subparts have to be integrated back into a whole; this turns out to be less of a problem than you’d think. In the teams we studied, the trust and respect generated within the subgroups made it reasonably easy to facilitate collaboration in the larger group.”

Another of Jeanne’s points very much echoes what the six expert, globally dispersed authors of Cultural Detective Global Teamwork have to say. Many of you know what a dynamite package that is and, if you don’t, please be sure to check it out! To quote Jeanne’s post:

“We’ve come across team leaders who achieve the same result (getting the most out of all cultural subgroups) by carefully establishing team norms at the start of a project. For example, we know of one manager who was leading an English-language software-development project; English was not his first language. In fact, his English was strongly accented. When he met with the team for the first time, he told them, ‘You’ve probably noticed I have an accent. If I could get rid of it, I’d be happy to do so, but since I cannot, we’re going to have to communicate … regardless of my accent or for that matter yours. If you do not understand me, or one another, whether it’s because of accent or anything else, we need to communicate until we do understand.'”

What do you think? In what ways are multicultural teams like fusion cuisine? What are some of your tried-and-true best practices for multicultural teamwork?