Bridging the culture differences in a team

In business we often talk about teamwork and building teams as if it is a normal behavior that everyone understands. In practice, it appears that building and working in teams is not as easy as it might seem. Many collections of individuals that are supposed to be a team don’t really work as a team. The reason is quite often not in the unwillingness of the individuals, but more a result of how they got together in the first place.

Teams most always consist of individuals with a different background. This will manifest itself to a greater extent when we work with cross-departmental teams or even with teams across multiple organizations. These teams are not created because of the perfect match in personalities, but because of their capabilities within the light of the joint goal. In a joint development project the engineers could be the best in class, but when they can’t work together the results may stall.

So, we need to bridge the differences to make the team work. Creating a solid basis for your team forms the foundation for the future success. As with any foundation, you need to start with the groundwork. I would start with a clear team kick-off, or if the team already exists a team-reset; for instance through a two-day team development workshop as described here.

Part of creating a team foundation is to create a team culture. In alliances we often speak about creating the 3rd culture. As both partners in the alliance have their own company culture, for the joint alliance team we need to create a joint alliance culture; the 3rd culture. We can do so by agreeing on a set of common values to which the team will adhere. In addition, a set of operating principles will define how the team works together.

When the team members come from different corners of the world, it might be easier for us to understand that we need to work on bridging the cultures. Recently an executive shared an experience of a European company working together with a Japanese company. The Europeans sent two executives to be part of the Japanese team. One of them succeeded, the other failed within a year. The difference between the two? The one that succeeded started to work in line with the Japanese habits and did his best to learn the Japanese language. The other one stuck to his Western way of working and failed to bridge the differences.

In the situations where the differences in cultural background are not that obvious, the risk might even be greater. We might take for granted that the team members are the same, yet we all have different backgrounds that need to be bridged. When we don’t work diligently to bridge those differences, our team might be unknowingly designed to fail.

A simple way to start in your existing teams is to understand what drives your team members. Have a coffee with them this week and simply ask what is important to them in their lives. That will mirror in the workplace as well and will help you understand their particularities (and them to understand yours).


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