The rise of Inter-Cultural teams: research, challenges and findings
Team dynamics have changed dramatically over the last 20 years. We have moved from collocated monocultural teams that operate less than 50 meters from one another, to teams that are distributed across the globe from different cultural backgrounds. Cross-organizational teams are also becoming more common as large companies try to cut costs and team up with companies that produce similar products to reduce their time to market. Sometimes these teams are pulled together into one place for the duration of the project. In other situations, these teams work together virtually and may only see each other once every quarter.
The most significant research on this subject to date was published in 2001 by MIT Sloan. After spending time with over 70 international Global Teams. Mr. Govindarajan and Mr. Gupta discovered some significant and consistent realities for Inter-Cultural teams. Very successful teams who reached 100% of their targets have two things in common. 1) They are able to overcome communication barriers and 2) they are able to build high levels of trust in the team. The result of this is a greater clarity of the common purpose of the team and their ability to build social capital.
Working with Inter-Cultural teams today we continue to see a repeat of these key findings. Communication and trust remain at the top of the list of concerns for Inter-Cultural teams as they strive to achieve a common purpose and develop a sense of belonging. Belonging, in particular, becomes very important as we leave our sense of belonging behind when we join a new team and culture.
Building a successful Inter-Cultural team
It’s important to remember that teaming is a technical transactional exercise as well as relational, its fed by understanding each others personalities or behavioral styles as well as getting a good understanding of the Inter-Cultural dynamics and the Inter-Cultural Journeys that each one of the team members has been on. For the transactional side it is important that all members understand the task at hand, and the competencies and skills and experience that are needed to complete it successfully. For the relational side its important that we develop Inter-Cultural Intelligence and Emotional Intelligence.
The success of your team starts in the recruitment phase. The team that was pulled together must collectively be technically competent enough to do the job and the recruitment process should include behavioral skills as part of that recruitment process.
Once the team is in situ it is important to quickly find ways to build trust and develop good communication.
Overcoming communication barriers has to have both a task element and a transactional element, as well as a relational element. The task element focuses on the creation of a common goal and objective, the transactional element on the competencies, skills and experience needed, whereas the relational focuses on team cohesion and their ability to work together effectively.
For the relational element you will likely deal with team members who are universal in approach (happy to meet at each others homes and do social things together outside of work) and those that are situational (those who separate work, family and social context). Best practice in Inter-Cultural Environments has shown that the best way to overcome that is to be a little bit more on the universal side of relating to each other. For situational oriented people who believe work is work, family is family, social is social, you might have to draw them in to compromising a bit to do more relational events together where you do get to know each other a little bit better.
So if you are leading an intercultural team, create moments where you allow relationships to develop, where information is shared with each other that might not be so relevant to the job. Moments like these will indirectly build better communication, better understanding and build trust between people, which is starting to now get a better picture of the 'why of why'. The creation of regular events that are creatively put together, (they don’t have to cost the company a lot of money and may even be built into the schedule) eventually really develop the team and create social capital.
A short-list of tips to assist in the development of your Inter-Cultural Teams:
- Create awareness of Inter-Cultural differences
- Develop Inter-Cultural Intelligence
- Establish clarity on:
1. team dynamics
3. expectations & common purpose (Mission, Vision, Values, Goals)
4. developing the “Third Way”
- Organize social activities to build trust
- Consider using a coach, at least for the launch period
- Establish a communication plan from the beginning
- Rotate and diffuse team leadership
- Link rewards to team performance
For more on building great teams, be sure to look at our article, 'Leveraging the 'Z' process': the four stages of teamwork and the right people for each stage.
Companies who can create shared purpose combined with high social capital are most likely to retain their top-performers, see an increase in innovation and the level of information shared, and generally achieve a higher proportion of successful Inter-Cultural teams.
Contact us to find out how to achieve this in your company.