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Helping Global Teams Deliver [Cont]

Different Behavioural Norms

Just as the same language can mean different things to the same people, so can the same behaviour.

Many British AZ team leaders in charge of teams with a great number of Swedes constantly

express irritation that the Swedes will not complain to them directly if they are unhappy about decisions. Instead the Swedes will talk to a Swedish colleague of similar status to the team leader who speaks good English, asking him or her to talk to the British team leaders about their grievances.

There are many reasons for this approach: first of all, many Swedes are reluctant to criticise a colleague publicly. Secondly, they find it difficult to express sensitive issues in English – they prefer to do so in Swedish.

This line of action is very common in other cultures too. It’s important team leaders understand their colleagues are not ‘going behind their back’ - they’re simply looking for a way to express their opinions in their mother tongue.

Swedes are also reluctant to criticise in an area that they are not themselves an expert. In a multi-disciplinary team, where there will often be only one person from each function, this can cause a problem. As Donna explains: “I had a chat with a couple of my Swedish team members because I wanted – and needed - them to be more challenging of others. I had to reassure them that this would not be interpreted as being rude.”

Different cultures also have different needs for consensus. Clearly, it is therefore critical to identify on the agenda ahead of the meeting, any items that are going to require a decision. Moreover, by circulating information or proposals in advance it makes it possible for team members to consult with colleagues where they feel this is appropriate.

Donna points out that yet again this is something that might be prompted by a cultural difference, but helps the whole team “Forewarning when key decisions will need to be made helps the Swedes who can then come to the meeting having consulted with colleagues and being prepared to make a decision – but it is also helpful for British team members who may be less experienced. It helps everyone.”

Travelling, Virtual Working and Time Zones

Global teamworking has some inescapable practical questions to address – when should the team be brought physically together? What are the implications of heavy travel schedules on work-life balance and (of course) budgets? How can teams work most effectively virtually? What are the implications of having team members in very different time zones?

These are all practical issues that are ignored by team leaders at their peril – because they can lead to significant stress, disruption and ineffective meetings.

Donna Johnstone is convinced of the importance of meeting face-to-face “Some people don’t feel this is important, but I insist we get the team together physically from time-to-time.” The team has also decided that these meetings will only be on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays – so that no-one has to travel over a weekend. They also recognise that there is a long period from the end of June through to early September when “either the Swedes or the Brits are on holiday – the Americans despair of both of us.”

Inevitably, however, virtual teamworking is a critical element in the mix of meetings. Initially on merger, AstraZeneca teams used video conferencing extensively. Interestingly, there has been a move back towards teleconferencing. “In my experience” Donna remarks “behaviours are better and it’s less isolating if you happen to be a sole member on one site; and you don’t get the side comments.”

Donna is going to bring in Japanese team members. This will inevitably bring significant time zone issues, making it impossible to get a virtual gathering of the team members at the same time because “by the time they are up in the US, it’s late night in Japan.” She adds laconically that this positions Europe as the ideal bridge builder “although it does mean long days.”

Reprint credit: This article originally appeared in Profiles in Diversity Journal in March/April 2004 and a shorter version appeared in theHRDIRECTOR as Midwifery for Global Organisations: Helping Diverse Teams Deliver Issue 3, February 2004