My plan was simple: create teams of students to work on community and culture bump projects. Given that my students come from every corner of the world, the projects should be dynamite! However, as I learned, not everyone in the world thinks like I do about team building. But once I re-evaluated some of my own preconceptions, the multinational teams really were amazing. Here are a few of the strategies that I have discovered about working with multinational teams at the Language & Culture Center of the University of Houston over the last 30 years.
A basic cultural dimension of team building is concerned with the distinction between working as a group and working as a team. In general, people from individualistic societies such as the United States find it easier to form teams. In American terms, a team consists of individuals who are working toward a common goal–according to their individual capabilities–and when that common goal is achieved, then the team is dissolved. Those same individuals may move onto other teams or form a new team based on a new common goal. In other words, the goal is the primary determinant of the team’s composition.
In contrast, people from collectivist societies such as some Asian, Middle Eastern and Latin American countries form groups, based on their affiliation. These groups are more or less permanent and the individuals within them may agree on a common goal or not. The tasks within the group tend to be assigned according to age, gender, heritage or previous achievement.
In team building as it is generally practiced in the United Sates, an awareness of this distinction can optimize the effectiveness of a team if the following cautions are observed. These suggestions are based on a model of 5 stages of team development called Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning first defined by Bruce Tuckman.*
In this stage, mixed teams need more time to form. There is a need for time and experiences in which relationships can be formed. Public confidence is less than in most U.S. formed teams. There may be a need for a more explicit explanation of requirements.
I learned this the hard way the first time I told a group of students from Algeria, China and Venezuela to form a team and prepare a task for the following session. When they arrived–sans task–I began to build more information (including the definition of a team, written questions such as who is the audience and what is the goal. In addition, I make sure they have at least one complete class session to form relationships–providing them with forms to gather basic contact information. At the end of their first session, they have to tell me where, when and why they will next meet.
This is a very delicate stage for mixed cultural teams. The team can completely disintegrate as styles of disagreement are very different. The facilitator may need to reassure some members that disagreeing is acceptable and some coaching may be needed for various individuals as how to storm.
Again, on teams that have a mixture of younger and older members or members with more and less education or life experience, I may individually coach the younger or less experienced members as how to contribute their ideas. A written assignment by all team members sometimes allows them to contribute more.
In this stage, care should be taken to make sure that tasks or norms are not assigned within the teams based merely on cultural roles. In this stage, as well as other stages, it is useful for all the members to be reminded–through observations by the facilitator as well as structured reflection by the participants–of the stages and the outcomes of the process.
I vividly recall my miscalculation with this stage with a team of two young females and one older male. One young woman was from Lebanon and the other from Japan while the older man was a high school principal from Qatar. Their goal was to provide cross cultural information to local school children. The two young women simply sat and waited for the older , more experienced man to tell them what to do, and he was very willing to direct the team. While their project was completed, it lacked the richness had all three been fully engaged in the team building process.
This stage is truly amazing when all the cultural diversity has been successfully leveraged–a synergistic quality that is rooted in the various individuals’ life experiences as well as their cultural background–provides a richly rewarding result.
When the synergistic process occurs, there is no way to predict what a team can produce. But a number of images from multinational teams illustrate the power of this synergy: American students who learn about patience from Asians and Middle Easterners who learn about time management from Americans are but two examples. The richness of a fully functioning multinational team is truly a wonder to behold.
This stage, as with the first stage, generally requires more time and sensitivity to the relationships that have been developed. Many times, a formal acknowledgment of the ending of the teamwork is needed. This usually includes some form of social interaction.
I learned that all my multinational teams truly appreciated processing activities to end the experience. In addition, they really need a social activity to cap off their experience such as a potluck dinner.
Copyright ©Carol M. Archer 2001
*Tuckman, Bruce. (1965) “Development sequence in small groups”. Psychological Bulletin 63 (6): 384-99.