Smart teams care about diversity, but truly excellent teams feature “cultural brokers”

Maybe you’re a “cultural broker” and you didn’t even know it.
Maybe you’re a “cultural broker” and you didn’t even know it.
Image: Jopwell
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The business case for diversity is by now well established. Diverse teams don’t just drive greater financial returns—they’re also more productive, more communicative, and more creative.

But according to Sujin Jang, an assistant professor of organizational psychology at INSEAD, conflicting norms and false assumptions team members may make about one another can keep diverse groups from reaching their full potential.

“When managers don’t know how to spot and address these situations, cultural diversity may actually inhibit a team’s creative performance,” Jang, whose research focuses on the dynamics of global teams, wrote in a piece for the Harvard Business Review.

Per Jang’s research, which was recently published in Organization Science, the key factor enabling multicultural teams to capitalize on the benefits of diversity is a concept called “cultural brokerage.” Jang defines it as “the act of facilitating interactions across parties from different cultural backgrounds.”

She conducted two studies, one an archival review of more than 2,000 multicultural teams, and the other an experiment involving 83 multicultural teams with different cultural compositions, and found that teams were significantly more creative when they had one or more members who acted as a cultural broker.

Writing in HBR, Jang explains who these cultural brokers are:

“[Cultural brokers are] team members who have relatively more multicultural experience than others and who act as a bridge between their monocultural teammates. These brokers come in two profiles. First, they can have multicultural experiences that map directly onto the cultures they are bridging between. For example, in a team with mostly Indian and American team members, a cultural broker could be someone with experience in both Indian and American cultures. I call such individuals cultural insiders. The second type of cultural broker is someone with experience in two or more cultures not represented in the team—say, Australian and Korean. I call such individuals cultural outsiders.”

Jang finds that cultural insiders integrate their knowledge of other team members’ cultures into their own ideas, while cultural outsiders, acting as a neutral third party, ask questions to elicit ideas from other team members and invite colleagues to share their own ideas directly. Either process integrates diverse points of view into the discussion—and that boosts the creativity of the team.

To Jang, the existence and influence of cultural brokers proves that locking “diverse” people in a room and expecting creative outcomes is short-sighted, and insufficient. She argues that teams need at least one cultural insider or outside if a diverse group is to meet its creative potential. (Jang suspects that the idea of cultural brokerage extends beyond the national culture dynamics she studied here, to gender, race, or even diversity in work roles—in engineering or design functions versus marketing or finance, for example.)

“Without cultural brokers on your team,” Jang tells Quartz At Work, “every member has to navigate cultural differences on his or her own. This can make the experience of working across cultures much more isolating, confusing, and frustrating.”

Of course, even cultural insiders with deep knowledge of the cultures they are brokering must “listen to what the needs, concerns, beliefs, and assumptions are of each side, rather than jumping to conclusions or filling in the blanks for them,” Jang advises.

Jang notes that cultural outsiders may be less common in organizations, because many of us incorrectly assume that only people with culture-specific knowledge can facilitate cross-cultural interactions. However, she says cultural outsiders “are also capable and effective brokers” for catalyzing creativity.

So don’t fear the conflicts that can arise when you put different kinds of people around the table—as long as there’s someone there to help bridge the divides. And if you’re someone without extensive multicultural experience, recognizing your blindspots and actively listening to the cultural brokers around you can make your contributions to the team all the more valuable.