Building a Cohesive Cross-Cultural Management Team – Case study

12-23-2018

This paper examines a real case of a Team-Building Workshop for a Cross-Cultural Management Team. An old saying says “You can see the Universe in a single raindrop”, and I believe one can see a lot through this single case. The author of this paper (hereinafter called the “Author”) has over 15 years of experience in Team Building and Leadership Development, and his role is an external Trainer and Consultant in this case. The Client (hereinafter called the “Company”) is a subsidiary of a typical German manufacturing mid-size enterprise (hereinafter called the Group) operating outside of Germany. The paper examines the linkages between the business situation of the Company and the workshop, and also highlights the connections of this single intervention with a broader team development effort recently started by the General Manager (GM) of the Company. The paper aims to provide insights into the challenges of training design: it summarizes the various factors that influenced training design and describes how Author customized the program and delivery approach to address those multiple demands. The paper also provides arguments for a systematic long-term management team development process approach instead of the popular “shopping around for good training programs” piece-meal approach.


The Company background

The Company is located in a small city, which happens to be a local center for the Industry. I keep the name of the place and the industry hidden for confidentiality reasons. The Group (a German global SME with 10000 employees and 3+ billion Euro annual turnover globally). The Company has a strong focus on a niche market. The business can be characterized by the following keywords: few and big Clients; steadily growing; highly automated and very technical production; high-quality requirements. The Company started its operations in 2012. The company consists of Technical, Production, Quality, Maintenance, Purchasing, Sales, HR and Finance departments; currently it has 150 employees in total, out of that 50 are white-collar employees.


Analysis of The Company’s business situation – SWOT

Strengths: brand and technology from Headquarters; product advantages; existing global customers; the production is running, but not without challenges; good sales results; factory working with full capacity; the company is profitable
Weaknesses: currently the company is relying on one single product family;
Opportunities: establish a business for new products from the global portfolio;
Threats: there is no backup; if any of the production lines break down, a serious loss can occur.


HR priorities

Given the complexity of production, this is not a company that one “thinker” can run with staff who are only “doers”; instead, having an effective, high-performing, steady management team who can think together and can create synergetic solutions is imperative for success. The need for a steady management team is further highlighted by the long learning curve needed for a new person to master the technical aspects of the production, and by the fact that the production lines are fully loaded and don’t have a backup, which leaves very little margin for error.

The management team consists of German expatriates and local managers. The expatriates have strong cultural and emotional bond with the group, but the retention and the engagement of the local managers are more challenging. The special challenge comes from the external environment: the Industry is booming in the area, and the talent pool for local managers who speak English and are qualified to work in market-leading companies is limited. There are also some talent-hungry giants, the Clients of the company, in the neighborhood fighting for talent and everybody is headhunting left and right.


Data gathering and development needs analysis

The Company has a new GM since 2016 September, a German expatriate with decades of management experience. The GM felt his work was smooth with each individual members of the Management Team, but noticed that there are chronic conflicts between some managers, which reduces team spirit, creates stress and hampers communication effectiveness. Understanding the importance of the people factor, the GM engaged Author to analyze the retention situation of Chinese Managers, and to identify improvement opportunities.
Author gathered information via multiple channels:

  • Conducted phone interviews with HR Manager and GM;
  • Conducted phone interviews with all managers;
  • Administered a detailed Motivation Questionnaire, OD-Tools MQ, for all managers.

The gathered data confirmed that the Company is doing well in most retention and engagement factors (the Hygiene and Motivation factors of Herzberg1 and the engagement factors of John Gibbons Meta-Analysis2), but the individual phone interviews with managers have identified an important improvement opportunity. Many managers complained about conflicts: cross-cultural and cross-departmental. The central theme of conflicts emerged from the stories of managers as a “company culture divide” between “Open” and “Guarded” styles:

Managers representing “Guarded style” are reluctant to change from departmental thinking to company thinking. The culture divide is a big source of conflicts and stress in the company. The Company Headquarters and the new GM all want to strengthen the “Open Style”, because that style is associated with high-performing teams and effective collaboration, and also that is the desired style in the entire Group in general. This is the background of the Management Team Development process aiming to build a more cohesive cross-cultural management team.


Management Team Development Process

In the light of above findings, after discussions between Author and GM, the GM decided working on four aspects in order to build a more cohesive cross-cultural management team:

1. Strengthening the Role of English as the team language. Management Trainings in the past (e.g. 7 habits, situational leadership) previously have been conducted in the local language and have been translated into English by an interpreter, even though the local managers speak English sufficiently well. This practice excluded the German managers from engaging in those trainings, and it was a missed opportunity for enhancing the cohesiveness of the team. Author suggested consciously strengthening English, as the only realistic possible shared language for this team, especially in management trainings, workshops, and artifacts of culture and identity. This process has already begun. Documents in the Company’s document management system used to be only in the local language. Foreign managers couldn’t understand it; HQ couldn’t audit it. A decision was made by the GM to make all the important documents bilingual.

2. Workshops (beginning with this Team-Building Workshop). The management team has not yet had a team building or any other kind of training together. Author suggested a series of workshops with the objective of working towards becoming a “High Performing Management Team” and improving soft-skills. According to the interviews, the main training topics should be: cross-cultural communication, conflict management, collaboration skills, feedback skills, and leadership skills. The first Team-Building workshop will be held on the 3-4th July, and this workshop is the main focus of this paper. If this first workshop will be successful, then further workshops will be organized to reinforce and expand the change.

3. Clarifying Mission, Vision, Values. Currently the group only has a Mission statement; it hasn’t clarified its Values yet. The Mission statement is not providing sufficient guidelines for the daily work of the Company. Author suggested organizing a management team workshop for creating valid (true, useful, motivating) Mission, Vision and Values for the Company.

4. Strengthening the relationship between the GM and the Chinese Managers. Good superior – subordinate relationship is recognized as a critical engagement factor universally2. Employees all over the world prefer to work for a boss whom they like. Because the GM is German, the difference in language and culture adds to the difficulty in creating such encouraging connection with the local Managers. Based on the interviews, some local managers would be happy to see more connection building steps from the GM. The GM already took action on this point: he arranged “motivational dialogues” (constructive one-on-one meetings using the Motivation Questionnaire Reports to have a deeper discussion) with all Managers, and the dialogues were smooth and positive. The upcoming Team-Building Workshop - where the GM will be one of the participants - will be also an important step.

All above four aspects of Management Team Development intended to be connected and synergistic. Learning English enhances Open Style; Workshops in English will accelerate the learning of English; Workshops will enhance the psychological safety which will contribute to more openness; Clarifying Mission, Vision, Values can be combined into a workshop; Clarifying values will reinforce the Open Style; Having the GM as a participant on the workshop will enhance the bond between him and especially the local Managers.

Objectives of the Team-Building Workshop The GM put it in one simple sentence: “If we’ll have less conflict, I’ll be happy”. So the main objective is a change in “chronic” behavior patterns regarding to dealing with disagreements. Using the MARS model, introduced by McShane & Von Glinow3, that requires change on various levels: in trainees’ Motivation, Abilities, Role Perception (and Self-Awareness) and Situational Factors. Based on the MARS model and experience of Author, the GM’s one sentence objective can be translated into the following sub-goals:

  • “Heal the past, and create a positive common future”. Interrupt the usual interaction and perception patterns, especially of those people who have conflicts between them. Let them get to know each other better from new perspectives. Let them revise their earlier judgments. Let them feel that something significant positive happened. Let them believe that change is possible. Let them feel that they are part of something special; that they have a unique opportunity for a significant experience and growth; (Motivation);
  • Increase cross-cultural sensitivity, openness, appreciation and the desire to learn and change; (Motivation, Role perception);
  • Strengthen the shared understanding about the expected team player behavior, and create a common goal of becoming a high-performing management team; (Motivation, Role perception, Situational Factors);
  • Create awareness and consensus about behavioral standards, especially when it comes to disagreements; Let participants replace former verbal and non-verbal communication patterns with more constructive, collaborative ones; (Motivation, Abilities, Role perception, Situational Factors);
  • Motivate people to change and grow, and improve their interpersonal skills. Let them enjoy the workshop, and let them want to have more. (Motivation, Abilities);
  • Boost the team spirit; increase the feeling of belonging and common identity. (Motivation).
  • Meet the expectation of Participants. Besides team-building, they expect to learn more about their Motivation Questionnaire Reports, in order to get the maximum benefit out of it. (Motivation, Abilities).


Potential Difficulties and Resistance

All of the 11 participants are positive about having a Team Building, but still resistance can be expected. Main reasons:

  • Some participants pushed the idea of conducting the workshop in the local language by a local trainer. They feel listening to English for two full days is challenging. Also, they cannot express themselves in English as eloquent as they wish. These participants may have resistance to the trainer and to the workshop in general.
  • There are chronic conflicts between some people. They don’t believe in the possibility of improving their relationships.
  • The promoted “open style” probably will be unusual for some people. They need a change in their self-awareness, and they also need new skills (new way of thinking, new linguistic patterns, new behavior).
  • Some participants are not familiar with online assessments, and they were surprised to see their Motivation Questionnaire Reports. They may feel it reveals too much. They may have a misunderstanding about their reports. These reactions are normal and expected. From a pure team building aspect, Author would not use these reports on the first team building training. But in this case, for “historical reasons” – for analyzing retention – the questionnaires have been already administered, people have received their reports, and were promised a training session on “Motivational Skills for Managers”; so this content has to be included in this workshop to some extent.


Training Design

A summary of the given basic parameters: It will be a 2 Days Team Building on the 3rd-4th of July. There will be 11 participants: 5 Germans (including the GM), and 6 local Managers. Venue: professional training room in a brand new training center in downtown. Main design considerations:

  • Comfort. It is important that participants physically feel good. They will be prompted to wear comfortable clothes and shoes that allow light physical indoor team building exercises (For more details, refer to Annex 1: Pre-training Communication). There will be generous coffee breaks, snacks, and sufficient time for lunch. There will be energizer activities to keep people in a relaxed and energized mood at all times. Author will use a light-hearted basic tone, and will try to catch some chances for humor and a good laugh.
  • Using Space (goal: interrupt patterns, enhance openness). In order to interrupt patterns, it is better choosing the training location out of the company. A quality hotel in the nature, in an exotic, secluded place would be the best. For practical reasons, this time a downtown location was selected, called “New Coaching Academy”, which has stylish, modern and well equipped training rooms. Author is planning to open room arrangement (chairs in a circle, no tables), carefully selected new-age music, and some other unusual items to create a special “new environment”.
  • Sensitive Delivery (goal: engage people, deal with resistance): Author plans to be very sensitive to the needs and condition of the people. On the physical level it means sensitivity to temperature, need for breaks. About language, Author will first clarify the need for a shared team language, and often will check if everyone is following, no one left behind. Author will also use the local language time to time, for entertainment and also if needed for properly understanding concepts. If people made their best effort but still couldn’t express themselves sufficiently, then they can switch to their mother tongue. On the content level, Author will be sensitive to the interest of people, and address the topics they are most interested in. Author will build on situations that people mention; and will use their words and their expressions.
  • Mixing people (goal: interrupt patterns, enhance openness, and practice interpersonal skills). There will be many changes in the size and composition of sub-groups. There will be discussions and activities with everyone together; in 2 sub-groups; in triads; in pairs. People will move a lot. The principle is having culturally diverse sub-groups, and Author will make sure everyone has a chance to work with everyone. Light, movable tables will be utilized to support the frequent changes. There will be exercises where people will be in close physical proximity, and they need to support each other and cooperate “closely”, as a way to increase bonding and affinity between participants.
  • Experiential learning activities with thorough debriefing (goal: fully engage participants, improve reflection, observation, increase self-awareness, practice social skills, bring in new perspectives, and focus on reality). Author is planning to use team building games, and thoroughly debrief them using the 4F methodology (Feelings, Facts, Findings, Futures: How people felt; What happened; What can they learn; How can this learning applied in work and life). Both the games and discussions are “learning by doing”: they practice constructive discussions and establish new habits.
  • Interactive style (goal: make learning relevant, enhance openness, and practice interpersonal skills). Author will create the space for and will encourage quality discussions. A large portion of learning points and insights should come from participants.
  • Equalizing air time (goal: interrupt patterns, enhance openness, and practice interpersonal skills). The number of participants (11) permits that everyone can speak in discussions. But because of differences in personality, language and competencies, some people tend to speak much more, while some tend to be quiet. Author will facilitate in a way that the quiet ones also will have their chance (and need) to express themselves.


Content.

Author put content in the last place not by accident. Not because the content is not important, but because it is often over-emphasized when managers talk about training, while the former aspects are under-appreciated. There is also a risk of designing too much content, which could harm the depth and quality of discussions. Author plans to use only 3 short “traditional” presentations aided with powerpoint slides: 1) Team development (Tuckman’s 4 stages, and the definition and development of High Performing Teams); 2) Culture, perceptions, and their effect on communication and collaboration; 3) Interactive presentation about motivation, and introduction of “Motivational Dialogues”, a use of the Motivation Questionnaire Reports. Concepts will be kept to the minimum and introduced through examples. These presentations will be blended into the interactive flow, as the following example shows:

  • Beginning: Welcome, introductions;
  • Training expectations visualization exercise;
  • Ice-breaking energizer exercise;
  • Presentation 1: Team development;
  • Team player behavior visualization exercise;
  • Communication game 1;

And so on. The full plan is included in Annex 2. There is a plan, but there will be a lot of flexibility in order to give space for interaction and discussions. There will be important group discussions and personal reflection / development goal setting after the main content blocks in the following areas:

Group discussion:

  • Communication channels – how are they currently used, and how could it be improved;

Personal reflection / development goal setting:

  • How can I improve my cross-cultural skills?
  • How can I improve my employee motivation skills?


Training Evaluation

At the end of the training, Participants will fill in a standard training evaluation form (included in Annex 3), including the most important open-ended question: “How could this training be improved?”. This question is to show a good behavioral example (asking for feedback), and it also starts preparing participants (and Author) for the upcoming next workshop. Besides the training evaluation questionnaire, everyone will be asked to observe the behavior of the Management Team for one full week in the following areas:

  • Is there more smile, more joy when participants interact with each other?
  • Is there more direct communication between team members to solve disagreements instead of arguing via email?
  • Is there more willingness to cooperate in solving issues in the “gray areas” (where responsibilities are not clear-cut)?
  • Is there more asking and listening to each other, and more learning attitude in general?

The result of these observations will be collected and fed back to participants. Measurement. Currently, the Company is using a yearly Satisfaction Survey, which is used for both blue collar and white collar employees, and it doesn’t include items for cross-departmental cooperation. Author suggests updating that survey or switching to a modern engagement survey for the white-collar employees and managers, in order to measure and track Cross-departmental Cooperation and Conflict Management.


Follow up

Some follow up steps will be done by the Author, as others will require the Company taking the lead.

  • The group discussion about communication channels often create practical ideas that can be implemented. The Author will suggest the GM delegating and following up the implementation;
  • The result of training evaluation will be fed back to participants by Author (in 2 weeks’ time after the workshop);
  • Author will send the training pictures to participants after the workshop as a reminder. The games provide excellent opportunity to take many great pictures of everyone. People usually discuss and laugh about them for a while;
  • One of the activities (Appreciative Collaboration) will invite everyone to participate in designing a team logo. If the logo comes out well, the Company can invite a designer to make it into a real logo using professional graphical software. It can be used later in communication, badges, … (HR or sales could take the lead);
  • Author will suggest the GM to often refer to the training experience once back in real work (e.g. “this is just like the blindfolded game we played, remember… ), and hopefully, others will also use their experience as metaphors;
  • Author will suggest organizing further workshops.


Reflections and Implications

Team Building is often considered to be a simple, basic training, often facilitated by beginner trainers, or often understood as outdoor fun activities, or just having a meal together. In the same time, Team Building can be a complex, highly sophisticated activity, utilizing principles of group dynamics and social psychology that we are just beginning to understand. The widespread application of both the simple and complex type of Team Building in business show that managers perceive benefits in both approaches. The linkage between team cohesion and employee engagement, team interaction patterns and team performance reveal how Team Building creates business value. Yet Author needs to raise an important question: Can a single event change the behavioral patterns of people? In Author’s experience, there is a visible change when people return to their jobs after the training, but the effect is fading away quickly. The obvious solution is to do it again, as expressed by a famous Zig Ziglar quote:“People often say motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing—that’s why we recommend it daily.” Change requires conditioning, reinforcement; the training has to be repeated regularly. Many companies address this challenge by allocating a budget for this purpose, then managers or HR will use the money to shop around: go to a nice place in Q1, have a meal in Q2, go rafting in Q3, and so on. They don’t want to repeat the same exercises, so they continuously change locations and vendors. This paper illustrates the problem of this approach: customizing a program requires understanding both the business and the participants, which requires efforts and time. Each time the team changes a trainer, this learning process has to be repeated. Another problem is the follow up: this paper illustrates that the follow up requires Client actions after the training, and people often tend to “forget” doing those once they get busy. No proper preparation, no follow up; this is the reality of the popular “piece-meal” approach. Fortunately, some managers recognize this widespread problem and turn towards systematic, long-term development programs, and the market for off-the-shelf piece-meal programs is shrinking. This paper illustrates why the systematic approach is more effective: there is just so much that needs to happen before and after the training in order to make Team Building a real driver of change and competency development. Let companies use systematic, long-term development processes to grow their business – let the fun last!


Results and further interventions

The first workshop went very well, even better than expected. 3 years passed since that first workshop, and the team had already three times two days workshops with Author.
Workshop 1: Team Building, Cross-Cultural Communication, Motivation Skills (as outlined in this article)
Workshop 2: Conflict Management
Workshop 3: Leadership (feedback, delegation, instruction skills)
The communication style and the team cohesion have improved dramatically. The communication style now is clearly the desired "Open Style". The business of the company is awesome. The operation still has challenges, and there are still some conflicts in the company, but the ability to deal with disagreements has improved enormously. There is more work needed on leadership skills (leadership styles, situational leadership, coaching skills), to cascade the positive changes down to lower levels more effectively. It is not a Holywood style Happy End, it is better - it is a continuous Happy Learning Journey!


Written by: Gabor Nagy

OD-Tools used in the development program:
Workshop 1: MQ Motivation Questionnaire
Workshop 2: Trait-Map® Personality Assessment
Workshop 3: Five Minute Feedback™


References

  1. Herzberg, Frederick (1968). One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? Harvard Business Review.
  2. John M. Gibbons (2006). Employee Engagement: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications. The Conference Board.
  3. Steven L. McShane, Mary Ann Von Glinow (2010). Organizational Behavior, 5th Edition. McGraw-Hill.
  4. Jim Collins (2001). Good to Great. Random House Business Books.




Annex 1: Pre-training Communication – Email from the Trainer (removed from this article for keeping confidentiality)




Annex 2: Training Plan

  Day 1:

  • Beginning: Welcome, introductions;
  • Training expectations visualization exercise;
  • Ice-breaking energizer exercise (Support Finder);
  • Team player behavior visualization exercise;
  • Presentation 1: Team Development & High Performing Teams;
  • Communication game 1 (Hidden Gems);
  • Communication game 2 (Satellite);
  • Group Discussion: Communication Channels
  • Cross-cultural Simulation Card Game
  • Presentation 2: Cross-cultural Communication
  • Self-reflection: How can I improve my cross-cultural skills?
  • Sharing, closing Day 1

  Day 2:

  • Morning energizer game (My Energy Level);
  • Interactive presentation: self-motivation, positivity (Exercises: Focus, 3 Good Things);
  • MQ Report introduction and practice of “Motivational Dialogues” (Pair work);
  • Employee Motivation Skills: Praise Well (exercise); Reinvent the meaning of work (self-reflection, sharing with pass-around cards, skill-building exercises in pairs)
  • Appreciative Competition: Creating a Team Logo
  • Game: Vision-to-Victory, or 8 Immortals Crossing the Sea
  • Summary, Closing, Evaluations
  • Backup exercises: Minefield; Gordian knot.



Annex 3: Training Evaluation Form (removed from this article for keeping confidentiality)