Forming a team with members from
different countries and guiding it to high performance levels is one of the toughest leadership
challenges. Leaders needs to closely monitor their team’s progress and frequently adjust
own behaviors to those of the team. A Western model originally presented by Bruce Tuckman
recognizes four distinct team development stages:
Forming — Team members
may not know each other at all, and levels of trust are low. People mostly remain passive; they
commonly avoid serious issues and feelings. At this stage, it is crucial for the leader to
educate the team on mission and objectives, roles and responsibilities, acceptable and expected
behaviors, etc. In parallel, creating opportunities for relationship building is very important.
Storming — Team members
start opening up to each other and confront others’ ideas and perspectives. Different
ideas compete for consideration in ways that can be contentious and sometimes unpleasant. If
things go well, the team will develop trust and cohesion at this stage. The leader needs to
‘sell’ mission and objectives to the team and orchestrate the process, which can
take a long time.
Norming — Team members
have developed trust in each other and start taking responsibility for the team's success.
The team agrees on a common goal and mutual plan to achieve it. The leader supports the team
in developing shared norms.
Performing — Teams
that reach this stage function as a unit. Members are motivated and competent; they trust
each other enough to allow conflicts to become productive, and the team is able to make
decisions without supervision. The leader mostly facilitates and delegates at this stage.
The good news: this model
has universal applicability with domestic teams and global ones alike, as all teams share
certain development characteristics. The not-so-good news: the leadership practices required
to support the development of the team vary considerably across countries and regions, as
culture-specific views of aspects such as the role of the leader, the value of relationships,
and the importance of face-saving play a major role. What works well within one culture does
not necessarily work with another.
At no stage is this more
evident than during Storming. In the U.S., Canada, and several parts of Europe, teams
usually storm ‘automatically,’ as competing perspectives become inevitable
once individual members start voicing their ideas and concerns. Facilitating the process,
the leader concentrates on two aspects: encouraging quieter members of the team to share
their views, and challenging the most vocal ones to remain constructive, if needed. Should
conflicts get intense and emotional, the leader steps in and helps resolve the dispute.
There is general agreement in these countries, however, that bringing disagreements into
the open is productive and helpful.
This concept of
‘constructive conflict’ is largely unknown in much of Asia and other parts
of the world. Here, people expect everyone to save face and not openly share their
thoughts and emotions. Leaders are authority figures whose statements and ideas are
rarely, if ever, challenged. In these cultures, compliance with stated expectations
and directives is the dominating team behavior. Members commonly do not indicate
problems and issues on their own, as local management practices hold the leader
responsible for staying ‘in the know’ and proactively identifying issues
such as emerging conflict within a team. It can take substantial time for members to
develop strong mutual trust and reach higher levels of team autonomy. Trying to
accelerate the process by forcing conflicts to surface is often counterproductive.
So what is a leader to
do whose team is comprised of members from different regions of the world?
The most important step
is to reset your views of how team storming is supposed to happen. Once you realize
that constructive conflict is not a universal concept and allow the Storming stage to
look different, you are ready to create an environment that allows global team cohesion
to develop. Use different, creative ways to identify issues and conflict. Because
non-Western team members may bring up issues only if ordered to do so, ask them to
discuss (as a group) the likeliest reasons why the team might fail and tell them to
get back to you with their Top 5 list, for example. Let them work out the list on
their own, and encourage a collaborative, rather than contentious, approach. Since
there may be a risk of strong Western individualists keeping others on the team from
voicing their concerns, split up the team into smaller groups with similar cultural
backgrounds if needed.
Throughout the process,
emphasize and encourage team harmony and togetherness, and educate your team members
about the cultural differences within the team. Remember: the key to achieving a
sense of ‘one team’ lies not in doing everything together but in nurturing
a profound understanding of each other. That is your most important challenge when
leading a multicultural team.