The cultural aspects of making a team work

I have the right people in my team. But I want them to take more ownership, be more pro-active. I want the team to step-up: not just do what they’re supposed to do, I want them to excel. Can you help?” Many of you must recognize the question. We all know that shaping a team involves more than only selecting the very best experts. Smart people alone is not enough. Research even revealed that the smarter the people on the team, the more difficult it is to keep the team effective. Sounds paradoxical, but isn’t. Think about the very best experts that your organization has. Are they the best team players? Usually not, they excel with other qualities!

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Appreciating the diversity in a team is not easier said than done. In a training we say diversity is important. When talking about it we say we value the different characters and inputs. But when the pressure increases, when the team is just before an important deadline and when things go wrong, our diversity intentions have evaporated. “Why don’t these guys just do it my way?” is often heard in these cases. Or variants of this sentence.

Cultural diversity adds to the difficulty. When you have a team of Swedish, Russian, Chinese, Dutch and American engineers, there are several things you should know. We pick out 3:

  • Hierarchy or not? And how do we work with the hierarchy in the team?
  • Group culture, or brilliant individuals?
  • How to deal with uncertainty in the team?

Hierarchy or not

  • Your team members from hierarchical cultures (Russia, China in this example) will expect clear guidelines and directions from the leader of the team. Whereas the leader in egalitarian cultures (Sweden, Netherlands) is expected to take up a more supporting role and is himself one of the contributing team members. In mixed teams the role of the leader and the expectations people have of her should be clarified to all in the early stages of team work.
  • When the team has a responsibility to represent the company externally, the team leader should be a visible person with status and power to be taken seriously in hierarchical cultures. Good for the Dutch and Swedish to know. They may not see the role of the team leader as very different from the others, but they should realize that the Japanese partner will. The team lead should be a person of status and power, at least towards the external, international environment.
  • Decide who takes decisions within the team. In hierarchical cultures, the person with the highest status within the team will be expected to take decisions (or at least finalize these after having collected all inputs). In egalitarian cultures, team members will expect autonomy in making decisions, or at least expect to be consulted when a decision is to be taken. This should be discussed upfront, to avoid unclarity and confusion when the real tough decisions are to be taken.

Group culture, or brilliant individuals:

  • Ensure people are committed to team success, and that they value ‘being successful together’ rather than ‘being successful alone’. In collectivistic cultures, people are used to acting in the interest of the group they belong to. They will naturally have more loyalty towards the team, and they will strive to make the team successful at all costs. People in individualistic cultures are not used to this way of thinking: they see themselves as individual contributors to the team. This attitude requires more effort from your side to shape the team into a close and committed group.
  • How do you share information? In collectivistic cultures, people will be more inclined to ensure that all team members have all the relevant information, and that everybody is involved in the decision-making process. In individualistic countries, it is also important to share information, but it comes less naturally to most team members (‘Information is Power’). Organize this aspect of work in the early stages of collaboration.

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How to deal with uncertainty in the team?

  • Do people expect a clear task description? In cultures with high uncertainty avoidance (Japan, Germany), uncertainty is reduced by carefully organizing the work structures. One aspect of this is to make sure everybody knows exactly what is expected of him within the team. In low UAI cultures (Sweden, The Netherlands), people will be more open to just taking the work as it comes, and they avoid organizing their work-environment too much. If you are familiar of working in a matrix-structure full of dotted lines, realize that for people from uncertainty avoidant cultures this way-of-working is not obvious. Clarify this aspect of organizing work!
  • Does the team need to be full of experts? In high uncertainty avoidant cultures, it is expected that the team will contain several or many experts. It ought to be plainly visible to the outside world that the team has been chosen to accommodate the right experts. In cultures that are very tolerant of uncertainty, the status of the team will not suffer from not having the right experts on board. Here, the team can be assembled on the basis of other criteria, such as individual personality traits. Generalists are accepted.

These are just a few of the intercultural things you should organize before your international team – virtual or not – will function. I recognize that in the daily pressure of work in a complex international environment, you tend to forget about these aspects and move on. The price you pay however for not getting this right, can be high. Invest a little time upfront with the team to address the cross-cultural aspects of cooperation. And when you don’t have the time to do this, well… make time!

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