Working with other people isn’t always a bed of roses. When individuals are brought together on the basis of their skills and personal attributes rather than their compatibility with each other, it’s no surprise when occasional tensions surface. And yet, in an age where individual expertise is less vital than the ability to collaborate across functions and borders, it’s never been more important to work together. So how do organisations make teamwork work?

On one level, says change management expert and author Dr Sharoq Al Malki, the answer lies with local leaders. Those in charge of teams must have a management style that supports team-building: “The main criteria are trust, fairness, accountability and respect,” she says. Managers must put themselves in employees’ shoes and make an effort to understand what motivates them. But this, she adds, is all too rare: while many executives may be technically proficient, they are not necessarily good at mitigating internal politics and smoothing out differences.

An additional level of complexity in GCC countries comes from the sheer variety of nationalities in the average workplace, and the potential for people to have different outlooks, motivations and cultural reference points. Professor William Scott-Jackson, chairman of Oxford Strategic Consulting, says managers can help overcome basic language differences by using “clear, decisive instruction” rather than complex participative discussions. “As a general guide, listen to ideas and comments and then decide as a leader,” he says.

But some of the more nuanced issues faced by cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary teams require deeper work. Research by The Economist Intelligence Unit found that 90 per cent of executives, in 68 countries, feel cross-cultural management is their biggest challenge. But unfamiliarity shouldn’t be seen as a barrier to success. Often the greatest sporting teams in the world are made up of players who speak different languages and come from very different cultures, but they come together to perform and work towards a shared goal under great leadership.

A culture of respect can overcome most differences, says Scott-Jackson. “Conflict and disagreements are inevitable but they should be dealt with carefully and with great tact,” he says. “For example, a team member might not be prepared to criticise or even query the leader’s decision in public, but would be happy to do so if given the chance to express a view privately.”

The right common cause is crucial here. “When you have a team made up of people from different backgrounds, cultures and experiences, the distinctive word is ‘different’,” says Dr Tommy Weir, speaker, adviser and author on innovative leadership. Rather than focusing on what’s unique about each other, or how to manage the host of differences, you need to bond the team around a goal, he says. “Think of a sports team. Everyone knows the goal – score more points than the other team. Each person has a role to play, but it doesn’t matter how well you play individually if the team doesn’t win.

“What’s missing in the corporate world of individual KPIs is the common goal, beating the external competitor, winning market share. If you want to build your team, have everyone work for a mega-goal.”

Lori Brewer Collins, owner and managing principal of Artemis Leadership Group, says culturally diverse teams are increasingly the glue that joins the globe-spanning operations of large, multinational organisations. At their best, they “outperform traditional teams in the areas of innovating, understanding diverse markets, meeting customer needs and aligning multiple organisational interests”, she says. At worst, they can be expensive, unproductive hotbeds of frustration, low morale and finger-pointing.

But there are ways to build more effective teams, she says – and it’s best to start as early on in the life of the team as possible, clarifying collective expectations and norms from the outset. The best teams she has worked with highlighted the payoff of working through and agreeing norms during the initial team-building phase. “These norms help to provide a common language that crosses the various cultures and backgrounds and gives each member a clear anchor of reference,” she says.

Other recommendations include making the effort to understand cultural complexities. It’s important that team leaders develop a global mindset that helps them know how to best involve people from different cultures, adds Brewer Collins. But at the same time, it’s essential to “keep in mind that individuals may not necessarily fit their cultural stereotype”.

Ultimately, says Al Malki, anyone who wants to bring people together to create a common culture – whether it’s HR professionals or a manager – will only succeed with buy-in from the top. “Once this support is there, the key element for building team spirit will be communication, which can be done in various ways,” she adds. These include: changing the layout of the office to facilitate conversations; investing in intranets or other forms of internal networking; hosting events throughout the year, such as town hall meetings or family days; using the corridors and walls of the office to communicate the organisation’s key principles; and encouraging executives to communicate face to face with staff.

Cohesion in the workplace can be fostered by the promotion of an active social life inside and outside the office, adds Francesco Pavoni, head of the MENA region at PA Consulting Group. “That could mean organising an after-work dinner or a weekend activity for employees,” he says. “For us, a crucial part of the recruitment process is ensuring that employees have mental and cultural flexibility.” Get that right and pretty much any group of individuals can become world-beaters.

Media Centre

If you’re a journalist or member of the press looking for more information or to speak to one of our experts, please contact our press team. 

Callout Image

Championing better work and working lives

About the CIPD

At the CIPD, we champion better work and working lives. We help organisations to thrive by focusing on their people, supporting economies and society for the future. We lead debate as the voice for everyone wanting a better world of work.