Promoting multicultural understanding through team building|
by Fazilah Idris (National University of Malaysia, Malaysia), Zuraidah Ali (University Tenaga Nasional, Malaysia), and Melor Md Yunus (National University of Malaysia, Malaysia)
Keywords: diversity education, multicultural understanding, team building
Malaysia is situated in Southeast Asia. It is divided into two geographical parts: the Peninsular and East Malaysia (Sabah and Sarawak). It is indeed a nation of diversity in unity where various ethnic groups live together to strive for peace, success and harmony. Considering this demographic background, Malaysia can be seen as a melting pot of various races. The majority of the population in Peninsular Malaysia are Malays, Chinese and Indians while East Malaysia boasts of a range of groups of indigenous people like Orang Asli, Kadazan and Dayak. These ethnic groups are strikingly different in aspects like religion, culture and lifestyle. For example, most Malays are Muslims, most Chinese are Buddhists, and most Indians are Hindus. They also differ in their cultural practices and taboos. The majority of Malays, for instance, still hold tightly to Islamic teachings and traditional ways of life especially in celebrating newborns, weddingss, and death rituals. As for the Chinese, it is important that the whole family meet during New Year's Eve. The Indians in Malaysia show their piety and faith in their religion through the ceremonial practices of thaipusam. This is the time when Indians carry 'kavadi' (a kind of ritual piercing) to repent their sins. The indigenous people in Sabah and Sarawak are distinctively different from those in the Peninsula. This is especially true among people living in remote areas which is far from cities. Most live in longhouses with three or four families living together in one house.
In relation to this scenario, events organised throughout the year in Malaysia are aimed to foster unity and multicultural understanding among the people. Other than events; festivals, language and culture also reflect the unity among Malaysians. This effort towards multicultural awareness is not only become the responsibility of the government, but also business corporations and universities. At universities, for instance, efforts are made to ensure that students are constantly exposed and infiltrated with ideas about multicultural understanding and diversity awareness through courses, student community projects and classroom activities. In real life, multiethnic work environments usually promote co-operation and teamwork during daily interactions.
[ p. 9 ]In response to multiculturalism in Malaysia, this paper attempts to share findings gathered in a research conducted within a university scenario which is believed to represent Malaysian society. This is done through group projects undertaking specific themes and common goals. It will highlight the benefits of team building specifically in promoting multicultural understanding. The learning experience through team building projects can be relevant and transferable to similar social situations, which the students will encounter, in their future careers.
What is a team?
A team can be defined as a group of people working together on something. It could be a group of youngsters in a football team, a family making a life for itself, an undergraduate research team unravelling a hidden enigma, or a rescue team saving people from a burning building. Thus, a team is a coordinated group of individuals organized to work together to achieve a specific, common goal. (Beebe and Masterson, 2000, p.6).
In the Malaysian teambuilding context, these words by Mansur (2001, p. 64) are worth noting:
a team refers to members of different ethnic groups either from an organization or different organizations coming together to work on a task and filling in for one another without any feelings of resentment and apprehension. This requires members to understand one another's values and sensitivities as these may have an impact on how they relate to each other.Why teams are good
Organizations like schools, institutions of higher learning and companies have turned to teambuilding due to several reasons. One of the reasons is teams are more creative and more efficient at solving problems. According to Beebe and Masterson (2000, p. 12):
Groups usually make better decisions than individuals working alone, because groups have more approaches to or methods of solving a specific problem. A group of people with various backgrounds, experiences, and resources can more creatively consider ways to solve a problem than one person can.
Besides that, teams generally make higher-quality decisions than individuals. Research clearly documents that "a group with diverse backgrounds, including ethnic diversity, results in better quality ideas. With more information available, the group is more likely to discuss all sides of an issue and is also more likely to arrive at a better solution". (Beebe and Masterson, 2000: p. 12)
William Edwards Deming, an American statistician who contributed certain concepts to the Japanese idea of continuous improvement or Kaizen in the 1950's once said that people are important. This realization on the power of human resource and human capability has made organizations and institutions turn to teams. Indeed, the best way to complete a multifunctional task is by putting together a team of versatile members. This is simply because teams can do work that ordinary groups can't do.
Besides, team also means 'improved processes'. Like the saying 'Two heads are better than one', group members working as a team not only collate more creative ideas and insights but also handle obstacles better. When confronted with problems, teams can see what is hging and design ways to overcome obstacles, enhance success, and apply organizational muscle to ensure smooth undertaking and completion of a specific task or process. (Robbins & Finley, 1995).
Teams in the Malaysian scenario
Whether at schools, institutions of higher learning, workplaces, or social gatherings, the common values among most Malaysians of all ethnic origins manifest in the aspiration to achieve multicultural understanding.
As mentioned by Abdullah (2001, p.1), "Malaysia has often been described as a 'minefield of multicultural sensitivities' due to its diverse racial and ethnic composition". Despite this diversity, it has also been observed that "Malaysians work in apparent harmony and unity brought about by a few unifying factors, the most important of which are values that have withstood the test of time and are common to all the ethnic groups" (Abdullah, 2001).
These common values among the people, regardless of their positions in society or success stories, are very useful in teambuilding. Common Malaysian values like collectivism ('we' orientation), harmony and non-aggressiveness, trust and relationship building as well as tolerance and respect for differences often facilitate discussion and decision-making in a team, as well as reduce conflicts.
Based on the survey of 443 Malaysian and 56 international managers working in Malaysia, it is reported that most Malaysians are generally group-oriented. Most Malaysians believe a person has no real identity unless he belongs to a group (Abdullah, 2001). In their group, they will seek a support system for advice and encouragement. At the workplace, this network can either assimilate newcomers to the working environment or serve as an emotional valve for confusion and frustration. Beebe and. Masterson (2000, p. 5) also emphasize the importance of sense of belonging in-group formation. According to them, "not only do group members need a mutual concern to unite them, but they also need to feel that they belong to the group . . . members of a small group, however, need to have a sense of identity with the group; they should be able to feel that it is their group."
[ p. 10 ]The implication is that Malaysians can work in a group, they can very well build a team and undertake new challenges. As a team, they will share a common purpose and influence one another. They should also be willing to accept clearly defined roles, duties and responsibilities as team-members (Beebe and Masterson, 2000).
Another value, which is common among Malaysians that helps to make team building a success is harmony and non-aggressiveness. Abdullah (2001) mentioned that "Malaysians feel secure if others in the organization, especially their superiors, are aware of them, understand their situation, treat them fairly and assess them accurately." Malaysians also dislike overt displays of anger or aggressive behaviour. In order to preserve harmony, Malaysians are often encouraged not to be frank with negative opinions. Instead, they are taught to look for subtle cues and ways of expressing it. Malaysians are also "extremely dedicated to doing a good job and they are eager to please" (Abdullah, 2001). In such circumstances, it can indeed create more harmony if members praise the efforts of colleagues when there is reason to do so. This can serve as reinforcement for the team, which is certainly a powerful motivator (Toropov, 1997). It can also create a collaborative climate, which is one of the characteristics of an effective team. Beebe and Masterson (2000) said that, "effective teams operate in a climate of support rather than defensiveness. Team members should confirm one another, support one another, and listen to one another as they perform their work".
As mentioned by Toropov (1997), "if you spot a situation where someone's contribution merits recognition but has not received it, you will increase cooperation, build bridges, and enhance your own standing by calling attention to the person's accomplishment at an appropriate moment."
Malaysians are also rich in trust and relationship building. Most of the time, "there is a strong preference for a relationship-oriented approach rather than a task-oriented approach when performing tasks. Developing trust and partnership understanding are far more important than the contractual obligation of getting the job done". (Abdullah, 2001). The value of trustworthiness usually encourages unified commitment among the team members. Just like the motto of the Three Musketeers – "all for one and one for all", team members should have this attitude when working together to achieve a clear, elevating goal and feel united by their commitment and dedication to achieve the task. (Beebe and Masterson, 2000).
In addition, Malaysians have great tolerance and respect for differences regarding religion, culture, food, etc. These values, which are commonly shared among Malaysians, contribute to a successful team building.
In a multiracial and multicultural scenario like Malaysia, one has to able to accept and respect beliefs and practices of others. This is important to avoid from hurting people's feelings and traditional ways of life. In the context of a team, this value can be very useful and helpful. In order to ensure teamwork success, it is best not to get on a high horse. As mentioned by Toropov (1997, p. 281), "it doesn't matter how much education you have, how many degrees you've earned, or how many years you've put in. If you're part of a team-oriented work group in either the short or the long term, you owe it to your colleagues to show appropriate professional respect and goodwill at all times".
The present study
To guide us in our exploration regarding multicultural understanding, we examined two hypotheses in our study.
- We expect to find the salient factors in team building that contribute to a multicultural understanding among students.
- We expect to see positive correlation among the salient factors in promoting multicultural understanding.
The sampling method employed by the researchers was a convenience sampling. In other words, the researchers gave the questionnaires to her own students in two of her Leadership and Interpersonal Skills classes taught during the first semester of 2002.
The subjects of the study were first to third year students from various faculties at the National University of Malaysia. 200 questionnaires were distributed to the students which consisted of three races namely Malay, Chinese and Indian. 190 of them were returned. However, only 160 could be used. The subjects comprised 44 males and 115 females ranging in age from 18 to 38 years old . From the sample, 91 were Malay, 58 Chinese and, 1 Indian. Somehow, there were very few Indian students enrolling for the specified course in that particular semester.
In order to investigate the relationship between team building factors and multicultural understanding, a questionnaire was designed for this study. The students were asked to complete a questionnaire with two sections: demographic and multicultural understanding. They had to provide demographic information on ethnic, gender, age, etc. As for the second section on multicultural understanding, students had to circle the choices given. Those questions were rated on a Likert scale of 1 to 5 points in an ascending order as follows:
A copy of the original questionnaire appears in Appendix 1.
- never - 1 point
- seldom - 2 points
- not sure - 3 points
- usually - 4 points
- always - 5 points
[ p. 11 ]Research procedures
Before the end of the first semester of 2002, the students who enrolled in Leadership and Interpersonal Skill course had to submit a final group project that represented 20% of the final grade. They had to work together for two months in groups. At the end of the semester, the students were asked to complete the questionnaire individually.
Analysis and discussion
Table 1: Underlying factors thought to ontribute to multicultural understanding
An exploratory principal-components factor analysis with varimax rotation was conducted to determine the underlying factors which correlate highly with multicultural understanding in a team building environment. From the fifteen items in the questionnaire, we identified commonalities and high loadings on three factors that seem significant in terms of multicultural understanding dimension. Using this scree test we have found that unity, workgroup and racial prejudice are indeed the three clear factors.
Table 1 explains the underlying factors contributing to multicultural understanding. The items that denote unity are items 15, 13 and 11. Meanwhile, items 6 and 5 identify workgroups whereas items 7 and 8 denote racial prejudice. The factor loading for each of items are represented in Table 1.
The result shows that in an effort to create a multiracial environment, it is important to take into consideration these three salient factors: unity, workgroup, and racial prejudice.
Table 2: Correlation analysis among three salient factors thought to contribute to multicultural understanding
[ p. 12 ]Table 2 shows the correlation analysis among three components which have been identified as clear factors in promoting multicultural understanding. From the result, the correlation between unity and workgroup is positive with a moderate magnitude of correlation. On the other hand, unity and racial prejudice show a negative correlation with a moderate magnitude of correlation. This is a meaningful finding because there is more likely to be unity if racial prejudice is minimal, and vice versa.
The result suggests a continuum of factors that contribute to multicultural understanding, ranging from racial prejudice as a negative factor, workgroup that seems neutral and unity as a positive factor. It is observed that the degree of correlation among these factors is moderate. This suggests two points: first, the items in the questionnaire are probably not comprehensive. Therefore, they cannot capture the diverse dimensions involved in multiracial understanding. There are likely other factors that influence multicultural understanding. Second, multicultural understanding cannot depend solely on unity, workgroup and racial prejudice.
Table 3: Correlation among multicultural items
The finding shows that in order to have unity in team building to ensure multiracial understanding, three factors should first be considered. They are: group members should feel that all their friends are Malaysians; they should foster friendship among the various ethnic groups, and they should perceive working with members from other ethnic groups as an effort to encourage unity among the nation.
As for workgroup, two factors are essential to enhance group effectiveness. First, group members should be disciplined despite their different ethnic backgrounds. In other words, each individual in the group will commit himself to abide by all rules and expectations in order to accomplish the task. They will try their level best to fulfil the group task (goal-oriented) and put aside all differences in religion, culture, lifestyle, etc. Second, group members should be competent in undertaking the task and group assignment. They should be capable in handling the task specification and knowledgeable in completing any assignment.
[ p. 13 ]The correlation between items and racial prejudice indicate that there are two factors that should be avoided in a team building effort in order to achieve multicultural understanding. When confronted with problems while working in a group, an individual shouldn't only limit his discussion to those of the same ethnic group. Whenever misunderstanding occurs, individuals shouldn't blame others from different ethnic groups.
In short, these items are important in enhancing multicultural understanding and promoting team building tasks among those of various ethnic backgrounds. Effective citizens, individuals who are successful and efficient, will undoubtedly need such team building skills in multicultural countries.
While the importance of teaching team building skills to tertiary students has received increased attention in recent years, the incorporation of such skills is still lacking. The findings of the present study will be a useful initial step in reinforcing the importance of team building skills to enhance multiracial understanding.
Upon graduation, most students will join the work force. They have to learn to adapt to work environments in which they must interact with colleagues and superiors who may be from other racial or ethnic groups. Career success depends predominantly on interpersonal skills such as cooperation, communication, and team building. In many cases team-building skills are the most important attribute of an effective worker. A novice worker's success in adjusting to a working life depends to a large extent in the organisation's team building skills.
In order to elicit the best in the work force, managers have to be aware of different cultural nuances, beliefs and tradition and tie them together into common bonds of solidarity. When these values become common practices among Malaysians, a conducive work culture can develop to support the goals and objectives of the organisation (Abdullah, 2001). As such, the findings of the study can be also relevant not only to local managers but also to foreign managers working with Malaysian workers.
Until today, we are proud to say that most Malaysians live in harmony due to our educational system, exposure and multicultural environment in the country. The government is putting all efforts to ensure unity among the people of varied ethnics and culture. Despite this idealism for multicultural understanding, it cannot be denied that lingering doubts remain among several few. Nevertheless, with the increased emphasis on team building and multiracial values in Malaysia, individuals will have to be able to work together and cooperate with each other. It is important that a 'family' atmosphere be created in a group to foster not only understanding but also commitment among the members. This will contribute to national unity that is so vital for the success of Malaysia.
In conclusion, the success of team building in a multicultural environment, particularly in Malaysia, relies very much on three salient factors: unity, workgroup and racial prejudice. There is more likely to be unity if racial prejudice is minimal. At the same time, group members should have strong nationhood and feel that all their friends are Malaysians. Besides, they should foster friendship among the ethnic groups and they should perceive working with members from other ethnic groups as an effort to encourage unity among the nation. Whenever misunderstanding occurs, group members should avoid blaming other ethnic groups. Instead, they should discuss problems and conflicts with people from other ethnic groups. This concerted effort among the people can help to foster and promote a multicultural understanding among Malaysians.References
(A Malaysian version of the renowned Japanese limerick)
Bersatu kita teguh
Bercerai kita roboh
United we stand
Divided we fall
Global peace for ALL.
Asma Abdullah 2001. Influence of Ethnic Values At The Malaysian Workplace . In Asma Abdullah and Aric H M Low (ed.), Understanding The Malaysian Workforce: Guidelines for Managers. Revised Edition,(pp. 1-24). Malaysian Institute of Management, Kuala Lumpur.
Beebe S.A. & Masterson J.T (2000). Communicating in Small Groups: Principles and Practices. Sixth Edition. Longman.
Toropov, B. (1997). The Art and Skill of Dealing with People. Prentice Hall.
Robbins, H. & Finley, M. (1995). Why Teams Don't Work. Quest Publications, Kuala Lumpur.