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?

Darryl Wee, managing director at The RBL Group – Asia, says he would warn any leader against taking a ‘peanut butter approach’ to building teams, as what works best will depend on the country as well as the individual.

“Your ability to understand the nuances within teams and to pull different people from different cultures together is really important,” he says. Patience is also key. “The leader needs to be able to take the time to build relationships and trust between themselves and their teams, especially with people who are going to be working closely with them.” But once they have been built, people are likely to work harder for you.

One thing he recommends to leaders is to ‘go last’. Wee says there is often a hierarchical culture where junior staff feel that decisions will have already been made by the boss so there is no point making suggestions. When calling a meeting to raise an issue, it’s worth introducing the topic and then asking for others’ opinions before contributing yourself.

An additional level of complexity in many countries is that there can often be a variety of nationalities working alongside each other, which means the potential for people to have different outlooks, motivations and cultural reference points.

“The reality is that if you work across regional teams you will end up having to deal with language barriers – the important thing is to put things down on a piece of paper,” advises Wee. “If you have a team agreement – summarise it and put it in an email. Before a team meeting, let people know what the agenda is so that they can come prepared.

“There is nothing worse than going to a meeting when no one knows what it’s been called for and then to be asked for your thoughts – particularly when language capabilities are an issue. Sometimes, people are better prepared when they are given a heads-up.”

Professor Chris Rowley, of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, also recommends “ascertaining team members’ language skills and levels and agreeing a common language and basic concepts to use in teamwork”.

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.

“If there is a shared purpose – something compelling that individuals know will make a difference to the organisation, that will add value – then that is a good starting point,” says Wee.

Rowley agrees that common goals and purpose are an effective way of creating bonds between employees of very different backgrounds, but says they need to “recognise and practice that the workplace is less unitarist and more pluralist in reality”.

In her role as an external consultant, Ana Filipa Fernandes, principal consultant at Oxford HR, says she has experienced first-hand the lack of a cohesive workforce and the problems it brings, such as lack of team spirit and initiative.

“Bonds between people are created over time,” says Fernandes. “It is about establishing good, open communications about what you are trying to achieve, listening to people and being available to support them when they ask for help, even when it is outside your scope of work.”

When it comes to employees working together from very different backgrounds, she says “the effort of communication should be maximised to ensure that people understand exactly what you are saying” and that there is a need to adapt language and technical terminology to the level of the audience.

“A common cause is extremely important,” says Fernandes. “This is key for people to get together and work towards a shared objective.” It’s something leadership needs to be sending out messages about more often, she adds.

Culturally diverse teams are increasingly the glue that joins the globe-spanning operations of large, multinational organisations, says Lori Brewer Collins, owner and managing principal of Artemis Leadership Group. At their best, they “outperform traditional teams in the areas of innovating, understanding diverse markets, meeting customer needs and aligning multiple organisational interests.” 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 give 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”.

In Fernandes’ experience, the creation of key performance indicators for teams helps to create a sense of team spirit, with staff working together to achieve the highest scores. She says that feedback and recognition given by managers, when teams achieve certain goals, can also positively impact motivation. Rowley says team spirit and a culture of team-working can also be engendered through group activities, including team-based competitions and social events.

Get all this right and pretty much any group of individuals can become world-beaters.

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