03 Sep 2015 19:07 IST

Getting the most out of global teams

Task-oriented and relationship-oriented teams operate differently; when they work together, a mindset change is called for

Why is it that some team members like to work by themselves and others need a lot of direction? Why do some see loyalty as a compliment, while others seek creativity? Why do some managers act like a player or coach, while others don the role of fathers or mothers?

I was recently at a Fortune 30 company working with a leadership core team to examine these questions and see how to cascade learning and adjust lens-viewing to be able to truly get the best of global team dynamics.

Task-oriented and equal cultures work like a special operations team. Employees are experts at their jobs and are valued and highly paid. The boss realises that he has to be a player along with them. But India has a relationship-oriented and hierarchical culture, the exact opposite of the one described here, which means that behavioural changes and alteration of mindsets are called for on both sides.

Cultures and responses

“When I was introduced to a really senior leader in the US, I was shocked to hear him say ‘I don’t know’ in answer to a question I had on a subject, which should have been his area of expertise. I was surprised he had reached this level of leadership but didn’t know the answer to the question. And I was even more shocked by his readiness to admit to it so candidly”.

The participant who shared the above observation about Western culture, where it is okay to admit that one doesn’t know something, was contrasting it with his experience of an Eastern, certainly an Indian context, where he would rather not have admitted ignorance.

Another participant told us how she felt upset when she went to work in Minneapolis and no one called her for a coffee break. Then, when her US counterparts came to India, they were even more shocked that the team went away en masse for long coffee breaks. “Why don’t you get the job done and leave early for home instead?” they asked.

Speak up with solutions

In many organisations, the modus operandi is to have loud arguments on what will and won’t work. Solutions are reached after much debate and that’s considered okay. But in some others, not speaking up at all seems to be the norm. When cultures are similar, team leaders know how to ask the right questions to get the job done.

But now, with Starbucks in India and Tata Motors buying up Jaguar, the rules of the game have changed. Getting into unfamiliar and mixed waters seems to be the order of the day, so the leader, as a cultural chameleon, needs to apply the relevant local rules.

The way to do this seems to be to explore what values drive communication behaviour — is it good to be counted as individual performers? Or is it better to be seen as a loyal team player? The answer to this will influence the reaction of team members.

Be prepared to change

The other day a non-resident Indian (NRI) and an American, who usually work really well together, had a run-in. The NRI, who is usually “cool” like the American, suddenly became all bristly and felt “not respected for the years spent in the company.” The American had to apologise and explain that he meant no disrespect.

Differing signals stem from cultural upbringing and life experience. And being prepared to change one’s attitude and communication style is the only way forward.

Right man for right job

“As leaders of global teams, our role is to inspire self-organising teams. We can no longer control individuals but need to provide an atmosphere where creativity can happen,” said an article by a leading Human Resource (HR) professional.

Identifying what each person wants for himself and the organization, and placing them in the right spot on the non-hierarchical ladder, is the challenge before us all.

Having different roles for different sorts of people makes business sense.

The well-disciplined team member, who is precise and task-focused and has a clear project plan, is crucial in the timelines part of a project meeting to provide clarity, while a person who may be more relationship-preserving by nature is better left to lead the HR initiatives of the meeting. This technique of using each person in his or her field of strength may be the most sensible option.

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