The Importance of Clarifying Team Roles From the Beginning

Today I attended a training by AFS Intercultural Programs which had the purpose of creating an understanding of intercultural concepts and how reflect on how these concepts reflect their own intercultural encounters. It was a good, and very interactive session, in which everybody shared their own experiences with different cultures.

During our discussion, I found one thing particularly interesting. Many Australian families hosting students or volunteers from a collectivist culture, are shocked because the students they are hosting are inactive from their perspective. The students stay at home a lot of the time, and are ‘waiting’ for their host families to return, so that they have something to do. For Australians, this often feels like a lack of initiative from the side of their host students. In a similar fashion, they might not help out with the house chores by their own accord. The result is, that the families then feel like the students lack in initiative, or even maturity. A big shock can also be to find that a 18 year old can not cook, or even use the microwave.

What we have to keep in mind, then, are the role expectations of these students back in their own countries. If they are from Indonesia, for example, they may have grown up in a household which employs one or two housekeepers on a permanent basis, living with the family. Throughout their childhood, and adolescence, of course these students then don’t learn how to cook. In Indonesia, a country with a high power distance, people do the work according to their level in hierarchy. There is no need for someone from a family from a white-collar background to do the cooking, nor is it valued by society. In other words, the student is behaving like he is expected to behave in his own country. His role is to bring in good grades and to contribute to the family life by spending the evenings with them. And since the father and mother are higher in the hierarchy than him or her, he or she will wait for the father and mother to come home so that they can spend time together.

In the same way like they exist in families, these kind of  role expectations exist within teams, too.

When a new employee from a country with a high power distance joins your team, make sure that he or she understands his or her team roles. Maybe he or she is used to receiving orders by superiors, and this goes against what you would call ‘taking initiative’. The problem then is, and that is something I learned from the training, that when employees newly arrive at the organization, often the tendency of managers, or team leaders is to say: “oh, he or she are just new here. Let’s give her some to adjust!”.  While these are noble intentions, this can lead to serious problems. Since the new employees do not get an explicit clarification of their role in the team, they just act according to the standards they already now. And that is to receive orders from superiors, and to then implement them.

All this then leads to two problems:

1. their behaviour becomes a habit and habits are extremely difficult to change

2. after a few months, the team leader recognizes that he or she needs to give the employee feedback in this regard. But because he or she comes from a collective culture, negative feedback causes him or her to loose face, leading to different kinds of conflict.

So as you can see from all this, discussing team roles and finding a common agreement, especially with employees from different cultures, is very important. Either way, in every team, team roles are being negotiated. It is just a question of whether you do so deliberately from the beginning, or whether the roles being established unconsciously, which means that you have no control over the result.



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