Building a Global Team’s Identity – From WIIFM To WIIFU

 

The traditional metaphor likens American business teams to baseball teams and Japanese ones to tug of war sides. In the former, individuals can still shine or disappoint however well the team does. In the latter, it’s hard to discern individual input – the team succeeds or fails as a whole. So far so good, but times have moved on. What happens when your team is a kaleidoscope of different cultures and identities, as it almost certainly will be these days? How do we build a group identity and consciousness so it’s not WIIFM but What’s In It For Us?

The importance of this is self-evident. We all know the advantages of global and virtual teams – from local knowledge and understanding giving better and faster access to a wider range of markets and better tailored solutions to less groupthink, more creativity and unique insights. The downsides, though, can be just as numerous – longer and more complex decision making processes, difficulties building consensus, misunderstanding and conflict through different work habits and communication styles, lack of accountability, and so on, and so on.

Moreover, most academics argue that homogenous teams outperform mixed, heterogeneous ones as the social bonds are stronger – at least, significantly, until a multicultural team has gone through a period of adjustment and made that bond. Underlying this, the cultural factor most commonly at play here is the individual-collectivist dimension. Where do the individual team members’ loyalties lie – to themselves or to the group? Trompenaars would argue we need to synergise both approaches so that individual creativity is encouraged and rewarded while still building team membership. This echoes and extends Drucker, who wrote back in the 1950s that work must always be organised in such a manner that whatever strength, initiative, responsibility and competence there is in individuals becomes a source of strength and performance for the entire group. But how can we facilitate this process?

If the team were co-located, what would we do to build group identity? The simplest approach has usually been some kind of teambuilding activity – an awayday, a group learning exercise, an evening out after work, etc. And certainly, if you can, nothing builds team identity like physical proximity. But that’s often not possible with teams spanning the globe.

We need to break the question down further. In their excellent book Virtual Team Success, DeRosa and Lepsigner list the common pitfalls of virtual teams as being a lack of clear direction, goal or priorities, a lack of clear roles among members, a lack of cooperation, and also a lack of engagement. For example, members can be spread too thinly between different teams and competing agendas to commit fully. In short, the dangers they identify are in fact common to all teams.

In turn, the writers prioritise the elements of a good team as being the nature of the team’s composition, leadership and communication. Specifically, they note that effective leaders focus on people issues. They foster an atmosphere of trust, ensure members have teambuilding and interpersonal skills, and implement strategies to maintain high performance. As such, again no real difference to any team’s success. But most relevantly to global teams, the writers also show that effective leaders are sensitive to interpersonal communication and cultural factors to overcome the long distance element.

Beyond such questions as ‘What are our tasks?’ or ‘What are our roles?’, team members fundamentally need to know the answer to ‘Why are we here?’. If we agree that we construe our identity in what we do and in our social interactions, then drawing out and defining this as a shared purpose become even more vital to the global team. As any group facilitator will tell you, interdependence is the quickest builder of bonds. Anything that impedes this – from ‘hygiene’ factors such as technology and language to more fundamental issues such as cultural communication and working preferences – needs to be addressed so as to allow the connections to form.

From this, reinforcing a virtual team’s sense of cohesion is achieved on the personal side by frequent interaction – regular online meetings, occasionally co-located if at all possible. Freedom from conflict and misunderstanding is another must-have. Work on interpersonal skills while leveraging the cultural differences for mutual comprehension and also creativity. Additionally, too many virtual teams are ad hoc and temporary – team identity will be encouraged if there is a sense of stability and also the perception of likely continuity. This identity can be further strengthened through project and task design to ensure full team member interreliance, particularly in the initial stages as a means of constructing a support bedrock. Another tactic is to increase outcome interdependence, in which members are forced to rely on each other for success. With this approach, each team member typically has their own piece of the puzzle to add to the whole.

In short, there are many ways to foster and nurture a team’s identity, however remote and distant the members might be physically. We are aspiring for what we might call team citizenship, in which team members will not only feel part of a shared community, they will also be willing to contribute more than they are contractually required to…wherever they are, whatever their surrounding reporting relationships, and whatever their first language.

I have a dream…Or should I say, Ask not what your team can do for you….

FURTHER READING

  • D.M. DeRosa and R. Lepsinger. (2010) Virtual Team Success
  • P.C. Earley, S. Ang, and J-S Tan. (2006) CQ: Developing Cultural Intelligence At Work
  • C. Hampden-Turner and F. Trompenaars. (2000). Building Cross-Cultural Competence
  • J. Nemiro. (2004) Creativity in Virtual Teams
  • R. Ubell. (2010) Virtual Teamwork

About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.