Before we look at corporate teams, I’d like you to think of a couple you know that has been together for a long time. If they are like most couples, in many ways they are probably behaving very similarly. Can you picture them? What are their similarities? What shared behaviours can you think of? Now that you have identified some of their similarities, I want you to look at it this way: what they have done over the years is that they have subconsciouly created their own family culture. Their children will grow up learning certain values which both of their parents have adopted over the years. However, what they probably haven’t done is to create their own culture deliberately. In a family, this isn’t really a problem. After all you just want to be yourself when you are with your family.
Of course, you want to be yourself when you are working in a team, too. But the nature of teams is that its members often come from completely different backgrounds, whether it is nationality, seniority, or their functional background. The challenge when you want to create unity in a team is therefore to establish a team culture which suits everybody’s needs. Many business writers say that you should sit down with your team and clearly define your team values together, so that everybody feels a sense of ownership for these values. That is a good approach, but it is not enough. What I propose is a process with which you can bring continous improvement to your organizational culture. Let’s have a look at it together.
1. Observe Behaviour
When we enter a new team, or any new cultural environment, what is the first think we instinctively do (if we have at least a minimum of sensitivity, that is)? Right, we observe the behaviour of those around us. Next, we try to fit in by copying these behaviours. However, there is a big difference between simply copying the behaviour of those around us, and understanding what the deeper meaning behind it is. If we don’t understand the reasons why people behave they way they do, then we tend to judge them. And what’s worse, since we don’t understand the values that underly their behaviour, we judge them based on the wrong standards. These standards, that have been ingrained into us by our cultural upbringing.
2. Identify Values
That’s why, once we have observed a certain behaviour of our team members, we need to ask ourselves what values underlie it. For example, imagine you have an Indonesian team mate. Everytime he passes you in a narrow passageway, he sort of crouches and stretches his right arm down to his knee. The first time you see it, you ask yourself what he is doing. Maybe you even judge him, thinking that he has no confidence. “A man should walk upright and look me in the eye!”, you think.
And this is where the problem begins. You have looked at the behaviour, and judged it according to your own value system: confidence. In Indonesia, however, the behaviour has nothing to do with confidence. The reason why Indonesian do this is that is their way of communicating: “may I pass, please?”, and the value they express through it is that of respect. Or, to be more precise, respect for seniority. A manager in Indonesia would never see as his or her staff member as lacking in confidence because of this behaviour. He or she would simply feel respected.
People from different cultures share the same values, but they display these values in different ways.
You observed his behaviour, and you analysed it as lacking confidence. If you had known what value the behaviour demonstrates, then you would’ve judged your Indonesian colleague in a completely different way.
People from different cultures also have different priorities of what they value.
Values are always something relative. Respect for others is probably important in every culture. Respect for older people maybe not so much. And while most of us will probably value respecting others, some of us may think of it as a central value of our identity, for others different values are much more important.
Often people don’t really know what their own values, or the values of their own culture, are.
That is why simply asking people “why are you doing this”, “what are your values”, or similar questions is often not enough. It is also one of the reasons why sitting down with your team when you are just strating out and collectively defining your group values isn’t enough. You will have to dig much deeper into it, by finding a culture mentor, doing your research, and observing people from a similar cultural background like the person whose behaviour you are trying to understand.
3. Find Common Ground
So you have observed your team member’s behaviour patterns, and you have identified the values that underlie this behaviour. You have also asked your team members to do the same, and analyse the others’ behaviour. The next step then is to find common ground. For example, your team consists of Germans and Indonesians. The Germans want efficiency in their meetings by going through the agenda step by step, addressing problems directly, and stay focused on the task at hand. Indonesians, on the other hand, want to maintain the harmony of the group by having task-unrelated discussions, not addressing problems directly, and building consensus. Sounds almost unresolveable, doesn’t it? Both parties want the complete opposite of what the other party wants.
Well… yes and no. Indonesians also want to get the task done and Germans also want to build good relationships. It is just that their priorities are different, and that the way they achieve these things are different. In Germany, a group can have a hearty debate about a topic on which they completely disagree with each other, and once the business is over, completely forget about this issue and act as if nothing has happened. For Indonesians, this may be unthinkable.
So what do we do?
We identify common ground (values we share) and make compromises in terms of the behaviour we display. For example, if we follow the consensus-oriented decision making model developed by Tim Harnett, we are able to reach agreement, albeit a bit slower, without confronting other people, and yet with the possibility for everybody to voice their concerns and suggestions. This is done through a process in which everybody first suggests a proposed solution to the problem, then all potential solutions are though through till the end by the whole group, and later one solution is selected by the group as a whole. As a result, every team member feels ownership for the solution, and criticism isn’t targeted to individual team members, but to the solution as a whole. That way, nobody feels confronted or crtitized directly, and group harmony can be maintained.
4. Behave based on Agreement
So you have collectively agreed upon your group’s value. Now its time to act upon them. But this is not where it stops. In fact, the process never stops. Firstly, what people agree on, and what they do, are two completely different things. Seconly, there may have been areas that you haven’t covered at all, but that are important for your team as well. And lastly, values can change over time.
What do you do then? Well, you start again from stage 1 and you identify a period of time after which you sit down together again to discuss all the observations you have made.