Managing Teamwork in U.S. – China Cross – Cultural Teams

Author: Joy Huang

A client of mine is a large global company with diverse teams made up of nearly as many Americans as Chinese. Besides the many other challenges, a typical complaint goes like this: the Chinese think their U.S. colleagues focus too narrowly on their own jobs and do not help out each other. And the Americans think the Chinese stretch themselves too thin, are disorganized and unproductive.

What exactly are they talking about and why is this the case?

Teamwork Style Difference

The below graph highlights the typical differences in teamwork styles between the U.S. and China.

U.S.

The U.S. has a tendency towards a project – oriented style. During the project, roles and responsibilities are clearly defined and divided among team members. People meet at regular meetings to provide updates and exchange information. They then go off and concentrate on their own particular tasks.

China

China has a tendency towards a people – oriented style. Roles and responsibilities are not quite as clearly defined. When encountering a problem, they reach out to their “friends” / colleagues for help regardless of the person’s role is. They themselves are therefore also the recipients of such requests. As a result, each person can be engaged in multiple projects that compete for their time and resources.

Cultural Roots

Understanding the cultural backgrounds of the two countries helps us understand where this style difference comes from. The key influencer here is the relationship – oriented culture vs. the task – oriented culture. And a central point is what defines a person’s "role".

U.S.

Tasks take priority in the U.S. and completing them in the shortest amount of time is seen as the best way to achieve productivity. Tasks are clearly defined and divided among team members. Each person is assigned specific roles and responsibilities. The measure of a high performer is the ability to complete the tasks that are under your name and produce results. Everyone is to make contributions to the team, but when something goes wrong, responsibilities can usually be traced to a particular person.

China

Relationships are paramount in China and taking care of your network of relationships is seen as the road to success. At work, people view their colleagues also as friends. And they would try their best to help out their friends in need. Team goals are also important. If the team succeeds, everyone gets rewarded for the success. On the other hand, if the team fails, it would also be difficult to blame a particular person for non-performing. This teamwork style can work wonders for certain type of projects, while for others it can result in resource waste and lack accountability in end results.

Solution

In a cross – cultural team, leaving the teamwork style challenge unaddressed can quickly affect morale, lower productivity and produce a negative effect on achieving team goals.

The team can work together to create and agree on a strategy or approach for the team going forward. The approach may be project specific. For example, the project – oriented approach may work well if you are trying to win a new customer where sales and sales support teams need to work together closely but the customer is clear who is doing what. On the other hand, a people – oriented approach can be more suitable if team members from different functional areas need to jointly develop a product. Sometimes the best solution may be a blend of both approaches.

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