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Who Decides and How? The Challenge of Decision-Making in Intercultural Ministry Teams

Donald Moon holds the Ph.D. in International Development from William Carey International University. He serves on Special Assignment with an NGO and recently moved from Buenos Aires, Argentina to work from a base in the eastern hemisphere.

Donald Moon holds the Ph.D. in International Development from William Carey International University. He serves on Special Assignment with an NGO and recently moved from Buenos Aires, Argentina to work from a base in the eastern hemisphere.

WCIU Journal: Leadership Topic

July 2, 2017

by Donald Moon

Sean wasn’t only frustrated, he was very upset! He has just received another email from team leader Ramón with another list of directives. It seemed like every time he turned around, Ramón had another idea and simply announced what they as a team were going to do. Initially he had liked Ramón and respected him for his experience, vision and the initiative he brought from his native Ecuador. However, it irritated him every time Ramón assigned him a task without consulting him first. Sean didn’t expect things to work like he was used to in the United States but he didn’t like Ramón’s style of assigning tasks and micromanaging everything.

The other members of the team were also annoyed. Hans and Iris, who were from Germany, didn’t like the fact that Ramón seemed to make up his own rules as he went along. Jonathan, who was Australian, was vocal about the need to decide on things together as a team. He said that making decisions by consensus was the best way to get people to all feel like they were are part of the team. Sean wasn’t sure the team could ever reach a consensus. In his opinion, the best way was for the team vote on decisions like they did in the U.S!

The only person that liked the way Ramón did things was Ruth. She was from Korea and said that since Ramón was the oldest, had the most experience, and was the appointed team leader by the agency, they should do as he said and things would go better. It appeared that she was setting herself up as Ramón’s lieutenant.

Sean was beginning to think there was quite a bit he could do just working alone. He sat down and began to make a list of what it would take to start his own project.


What is happening to this team? Why is it happening? Why are people reacting the way they are? Is it because of personality differences or is there another reason there is so much discord?

Members of intercultural teams bring with them their cultural preferences or biases about many things, including leadership styles and how decisions are made. Misunderstandings and conflict were nearly inevitable when team members operate, often unknowingly, from their cultural preferences. Their different ideas about what they consider the correct way to make decisions is a key indicator of their cultural type. Considering some fundamental aspects of culture and how it affects the members of intercultural ministry teams, especially in the area of how decisions are made, will be helpful to understand what is taking place in the story.

Recounting the Story

Cultural differences quickly rise to the forefront when people from different cultures meet. The encounter provokes an emotional response as people react positively or negatively to the differences (Silzer 2011. Kindle location 771). A positive reaction can be a sense of peace or joy, being patient, kind, and helpful. A negative reaction is identified by emotions such as being shocked, surprised, or angry. Depending on a person’s cultural preferences, they may experience both types of emotions as they interact with people of other cultures. Either way, their reactions show a great deal about their own cultural formation and cultural preferences.

In the narrative, Ramón is from Ecuador and Ruth is from Korea. Both countries have Hierarching cultures. In their cultures the leader has a great deal of authority and people are to defer to the leader in making decisions, who in turn rewards them for their loyalty. Ruth feels comfortable with Ramón’s leadership style. This sheds light on why Ruth is so supportive of Ramón. Ruth also believes everyone has a defined position in society. She enjoys a high social position in her country and this affects her expectations concerning her role and position on the team.

On the other hand, Hans and Iris are from Germany which is an Institutionalizing culture. They believe leaders are to make decisions according to established rules and policies. They react with frustration when someone does not follow the rules. However, in this case no one seems to know the rules that the group is to follow. They show surprise when Ramón seems to make up the rules as he goes along.

Jonathan, is from the Interrelating culture of Australia and feels most comfortable with a leader that is low-key and who uses their role primarily to facilitate a decision made by consensus. Since Ramón is hierarchical in his leadership and decision-making style, it generates tension in Jon, who reacts negatively. At the same time, Jon probably appreciates Ramón’s strong sense of community and inclusiveness in the team.

Finally, Sean, originates from the Individuating culture of the United States. Though he has a sincere concern for others, he believes that he has a right to make his own decisions and stands by his opinions no matter what the other members of the group think. Although he says that he doesn’t expect things to work like they do in his home country, he finds it difficult to work closely on a team with a group of people that think so differently than he does. He reacts positively to Ramón’s sense vision and personal initiative, both cultural values that he shares, but he reacts negatively to Ramón’s hierarchical decision-making style that clashes with his individuating style.

The Influence of Culture

Leadership styles and decision-making are strongly driven by culture and is reflected in the actions of team members. While people make multiple decisions every day of their lives, they are mostly unconscious about the way they make decisions or why they make them the way they do.

People and leaders do not live and lead out of a vacuum. They respond to their cultural foundations they learned in their society, beginning as small children on their mother’s lap. These cultural foundations become cultural preferences, the way that people prefer to do things, and are considered as the correct and best way to do things. People react emotionally when they encounter cultural differences. The greater the difference, the greater the emotional response. If the person likes what they experience, they will respond in a positive way. If the difference conflicts with their preferences, they respond negatively by being upset, shocked or surprised. Individuals who have become leaders learned from their cultural surroundings about how leaders are supposed to act. This often happens informally by observation and experience at home, school, church or at work and includes learning about who makes decisions and how they make them.

It is no surprise then that when people of different cultural backgrounds come together as a team that they find it difficult to not only determine how things should be done but more specifically, how it is decided what should be done. Foundational ideas of what is important, how people are to act and react as well as to communicate and work together are intricately connected with cultural preferences.

Cultural Foundations

Cultural studies can help us understand some of the differences and show us a way to not just avoid difficulties but to benefit from the differences that members bring to an intercultural team. Hofstede uses several terms as descriptors for cultural values that define how cultures see important issues of life. This involves understanding who makes decisions and how they are made. He shows that power distance, uncertainty avoidance and the individualism versus collectivism can explain a range of cultural values that determine cultural responses (Hofstede et.al. 2010, Kindle page 31).

Power Distance

Hofstede denotes the gap between people who are considered as unequal by society, such as a boss and a subordinate, as power distance and evaluates its proportion as being from small to large (Ibid.). Power distance can be described as the degree to which a leader and follower are separated by a sense of authority or power that may be reflected in titles, rank, positions or less visible elements of organizational culture (Sagie and Aycan 2003, 456). The less social distance between an authority figure and a subordinate, or small-power-distance, the more participatory the decision-making style. The opposite is also true. The more distance between the person in authority and the subordinate, or large power-distance, the less participatory the decision-making style.

Uncertainty Avoidance

Every decision involves some level of risk. Uncertainty avoidance affects decision-making because the less tolerance a person senses towards uncertainty, the less risk they are willing to take in making decisions. The less assurance there is that a decision will have the desired result, the higher the sense of risk. Members of societies are formed by cultural values to feel comfortable with different levels of risk or uncertainty. The more risk that is involved in the decision, the more a person’s cultural background influences their willingness to be involved in making the decision (Waragarn and Ghazal 2008, 20).

Collectivism Versus Individualism

The cultural dimension of collectivism versus individualism affect the making of decisions because the two social views of this cultural dimension are completely opposite. Collectivism versus individualism is the degree to which a culture encourages its members to sense responsibility primarily for themselves or for the group and to act accordingly in the issues of life (Sagie and Aycan 2003, 456).

Collectivism emphasizes the group or community and its well-being while individualism encourages individuals to take care of themselves. Collectivism strives to maintain group cohesion while individualism seeks to maintain an individual’s independence. As these views are played out in daily lives, it become evident that collectivistic groups will make decisions that consider the whole group while individualistic cultures will expect individuals to personally make many of the decisions that affect their life without regard for others around them (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 708).

The Influence of Structure and Community on Decision-making

Further studies by Silzer based on the cultural theory of Mary Douglas, a British anthropologist, defines culture on the two axes of Structure and Community, each on a scale from weak to strong. Structure shows how individuals are defined within a culture whereas Community shows the degree to which people are bonded together by culture. Cultures that display a weak bond of community have a tendency towards Individualism while those that display a strong bond of community have a tendency towards Collectivism.
The following chart shows some of the main features of the two axes of Structure and Community.

Main Features of Structure and Community (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 596).

Main Features of Structure and Community (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 596).

Silzer notes that in Strong Structure communities, decision-making is accomplished according to the rules of the system that have been developed over a time and result in an established way of doing things. On the other hand, in Weak Structure communities individuals are given priority and they find their own sources of information make decisions independently (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 629).

The Douglas/Silzer approach to cultural theory reveals four major cultural types which include Individuating (Weak Community, Weak Structure), Institutionalizing (Weak Community, Strong Structure), Hierarching (Strong Structure, Strong Community) and Interrelating (Strong Community, Weak Structure). Decision-making plays out differently in each of the cultural types, reflecting both the way decisions are made, who makes them and who wins in conflict situations. The main points of the cultural preferences of decision making according to the cultural type is reflected in the following chart.

Decision-making Styles as related to Silzer/Douglas Cultural Theory (Moon 2013, 7).

Decision-making Styles as related to Silzer/Douglas Cultural Theory (Moon 2013, 7).

Decision-Making Styles

Decision making is a basic human function. The human capacity to make decisions reflects God as the ultimate authority (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 425). However, decisions are made very differently by different cultures. The four primary decision making styles are Authoritarian, Consensus, Consultative, and Individual. Each one is distinct and is appreciated as the cultural preference by the majority of the members in the cultural type that embraces it.

Authoritarian decision-making is primarily found in Hierarching cultures and largely rests on an individual leader who is trusted by the members of the society. The leader is expected to understand the needs of the members of the society or group and make decisions accordingly that are considered to be in the best interest of the group. As a leader they are expected to be knowledgeable of the traditions and rituals of the culture and respect them when they make decisions so that order is maintained.

Consensus decision-making is practiced in Interrelating cultures and relies on the entire membership of the group to make a decision. Group leaders do not make decisions but rather are tasked with making sure that every viable member of the group has the opportunity to give their opinion. The role of the leader is to manage the process, construct a synthesis of the various views and build a consensus that results in a decision made by the group. The priority is that harmony of the group is maintained rather than seeking for efficiency in the process or effectiveness in the decision. In the mind of the group, if harmony is maintained and relationships are respected, then whatever decision is made is the most effective one.

Rule-based decision-making is used in Institutionalizing cultures and focuses on the rules that are established and followed by the group. In this case, the institution is the larger society and not just one entity. People in general have a sense that the rules are made for a reason and are to be followed. They appreciate the order that rules bring to society and to their personal lives. As a result, decisions are expected to be made according the rules. Therefore, having rules and following the rules is valued in the culture and extends from the areas of government, business, and institutions to include the family and the individual.

Individual decision making is based on the individual which is foundational to the Individuating culture. In this style, each person has a strong sense of opinion and a feeling of entitlement to make a decision that is favorable to them or reflects their opinion no matter what the other members of the group think. The leader has to shape his or her role as a leader and cope with the criticism and opinions of the members. Therefore, while this method allows for extensive personal expression and builds a strong sense of personal responsibility, it is very difficult to manage in a group.

The Challenge of Decision-Making in Intercultural Teams

When these different decision making styles are brought into the context of an intercultural team, the consequences can be devastating. Each member feels comfortable with the method that they have known and unconsciously adhere to it as their cultural preference. Cultural preferences are deeply embedded in the psyche of the individual, making it difficult for them to accept any other method. Foreign methods are viewed as inferior and thus likely to result in faulty decisions that are ineffective and produce undesired results. Therefore, the method that each person is accustomed to in their culture is seen as the best method and the correct way of going about making decisions.

The challenge for an intercultural team is to find their way forward in the midst of such obstacles. One strategy may be to try to blend pieces of each cultural background to try to satisfy all the participants. However, it is unlikely to succeed because the cultural values are fundamentally different and in many ways incompatible. Another strategy may be for one person to take control and operate the team according to their cultural preferences while consciously or unconsciously attempting to train the others to operate according the method they impose. This is most likely to happen if the team leader is appointed by a higher authority rather than selected and recognized by the team itself. This too will fail as members chafe under the direction that espouses values different from their own. Members may be willing to accept minor differences in behavior but they will likely adamantly defy what they deem to be a violation of their values, whether or not they are conscious of those values.

A better strategy is to create a new team culture that is based on mutual values. However, the values have to transcend culture or the team will quickly become mired in the contest of cultural preferences which reflect the values of the different cultures.

Silzer proposes that values should be identified from a study by the team of the image of God, looking at the Substantive view of God’s image which results in choosing to depend on God, the Functional view which results in taking care of God’s creation including humanity, and the Relational view which results in loving one another in community (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 355).

In gaining an understanding of the image of God and how they are created in His image, the team can identify foundational values that are borne out of God’s Truth through His Word. When members seek to know God’s truth and to choose God’s will over human systems of rules and methods, they will find commonality and unity as they walk together. Team members will not look to their own cultural preferences for satisfaction or security but rather seek to live in ways that glorify God by depending on Him rather than on themselves or others, by honoring and respecting the other members as creations in His image, and building relationships built on love. This is opposite of relying on ourselves or our community for security, to feeling superior to others because of race or culture, and to demeaning others or neglecting them so that our own needs may be met.

Silzer comments, “When we are aligned with God’s will, we make decisions based on the truth of God’s Word that reflect God’s character in our actions and relationships. We demonstrate a life of holiness that is not limited by cultural interpretation; a life that transcends culture” (Silzer 2011, Kindle location 441). This should be the goal of both leaders and members of intercultural ministry teams. Teams that follow this path will find that they function better when aligned with what they mutually understand to be reflective of God’s truth and character rather than being guided by their preferred cultural values. They have a much better chance at succeeding in making effective decisions, building team unity, and being effective in ministry. When these elements are a part of the team context, everyone is much happier.


Hofstede, Geert and Gert Jan Hofstede, Michael Minkov. 2010. Cultures and organizations: Software for the mind: Intercultural cooperation and its importances for survival. New York: McGraw Hill. Kindle Edition.

Moon, Donald L. 2013. Decision-making in Latin American contexts. Unpublished paper.

Sagie, Abraham and Zeynep Aycan. 2003. A cross-cultural analysis of participative decision making in organizations. London: Sage Publications. http://hum.sagepub.com/content/56/4/453 (accessed May 15, 2013).

Silzer, Sheryl. 2011. Biblical multicultural teams: Applying biblical truth to cultural differences. Pasadena: William Carey International University Press. Kindle Edition.

Waragarn, Pannavalee and Ghazal Rafique. 2008. How is decision-making in project teams influenced by national cultures? Umeå University, Umeå, Sweden. 2008 . (accessed September 18, 2010). http://umu.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:141284

Recommended Reading

Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. 2008. Leading Cross-culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI.
Plueddeman, James. E. 2009. Leading Across Cultures: Effective Ministry and Mission in the Global Church. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
Silzer, Sheryl Takagi. 2011. Biblical Multicultural Teams: Applying Biblical Truth to Cultural Differences. William Carey International University, Pasadena, CA.