AN INCREASING number of business people are working with, contributing to or managing multinational teams.

It is important, therefore, that they gain a fuller understanding of how cultural differences can affect the performance of these teams.

Different cultural perspectives can influence how you approach discussions, meetings, teamwork and even concepts such as success and failure.

Subtle rules of etiquette governing everyday interactions may also cause difficulties that can take months to be identified.

For example, people from many cultures are embarrassed to admit that they do not understand something. So they may say that they do to please the person asking them.

This can have serious implications for health and safety, product quality and efficiency.

Some cultures see making mistakes as a way to improve processes. But for other cultures, any admission of failure represents an unacceptable loss of dignity.

This has important implications for quality management.

Don't lose face

Mr Alan Needle, a former divisional chief executive at Filtronic, a wireless communications equipment manufacturer, recounts how a quality assessment score of 93 per cent for its plant in China was seen as a failure by the local workforce, for whom nothing less than 100 per cent was acceptable.

"There was a massive loss of face, especially as the result was presented in front of other colleagues," he says.

"The Chinese would repair a fault themselves, rather than admit that an error was found on the shopfloor. That way, you couldn't track any problems and improve design and systems."

Filtronic's managers learnt to explain the context of scoring, being careful to promote the successes first, before giving the absolute score.

They handled errors sensitively, and by checking specifications and suggesting slight changes, they were able to introduce the correct information.

Do it in private, please

Professor Mohammed Zairi highlights his experiences of working with an international oil company in the Middle East.

"Loss of face is a really big issue there. You must never put someone in a situation where they can be perceived to be failing and can't explain or get out of it," he warns.

"Some of the firm's directors were there because of their skills; others were there because of their connections. Strategy didn't come naturally to everyone. We had to coach them on a one-to-one basis.

"It involved lots of praise, calling on their leadership and getting them to show commitment.

"Putting everyone into team discussions wouldn't have worked because that would have shown up too many weaknesses."

Yes or no?

People in different cultures are embarrassed about different things.

In some countries, people can feel uncomfortable about declining invitations because it appears unkind or rude.

They may say "yes" to please you and then not turn up, which to other cultures may be more upsetting than a refusal at the outset.

Early or late?

The concept of time also differs from culture to culture.

People are often baffled by the complex etiquette of arriving promptly in some situations but coming late in others.

People are expected to be on time, or even a little early, for business meetings, and an explanatory phone call is considered polite in the event of a delay.

On the other hand, an invitation to someone's home for dinner may be arranged for 8pm, but a guest wouldn't be expected to arrive on the dot.

Being sensitive to different social and cultural values is the way to break down barriers.

The feeling that you belong and can contribute in a positive way to your workplace and friendships is ultimately what unites everyone.