Developing Trust within International Teams: The Impacts of Culture on Team Formation and Process

Developing Trust within International Teams: The Impacts of Culture on Team Formation and Process

Kurt D. Kirstein (City University of Seattle, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-9970-0.ch021
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The widespread use of international teams has been driven by an unprecedented need to draw upon varied talents of employees from around the globe in a manner that is both organizationally and financially feasible. Despite the importance of technologies to enable such teams, their success depends largely on the levels of intra-team trust and collaboration they are able to establish throughout the life of their projects. Team members on international teams may differ substantially on a number of cultural dimensions including preferences for individualistic versus collective teamwork, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and contextual communication. This chapter will investigate how these four cultural dimensions are likely to impact trust within an international team. Suggestions that team leaders can utilize to address these cultural dimensions are also presented.
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Given the increasing globalization of business practices, and the difficulties associated with international and even domestic travel, organizations are seeking ways to realize the benefits of multinational collaboration without the undue inconvenience and expense that have typically been associated with globalization efforts. Improving information and communication technologies have provided the means by which multinational companies can move beyond the geographic constraints that were formerly associated with traditional face-to-face business models. Such technologies enable companies to draw upon the contributions of employees or associates from around the world as they develop creative products for a global market. These advances have opened the door to new and evolving levels of collaboration though the use of international teams, which can be understood as a group of people who work together, via technology, toward a shared purpose despite space, time, and organization boundaries (Lipnack & Stamps, 2000). International teams cross multiple domains to streamline a company’s operations by maximizing personnel efficiency and adding flexibility (Hanover Research Council, 2008). The complexity of international teams is increasing steadily as the structure of global organizations shift. What was formerly a dual or tri-nation organizational hierarchy has now evolved into truly globally networked organization. What was formerly an arrangement of organizations, each with its own national identity, has shifted into new entities that create and employ novel transnational strategies (Harvey, Mcintyre, Moeller & Sloan III, 2012).

Certainly, international teams could not exist, or be effective, without the proper technology infrastructure to support them. Yet, as important as technology is to an international team, it is merely a tool to carry forward the team’s purpose. What is more important is that the team is clearly organized, with a unified purpose, and that it is capable of drawing upon the strengths of all its members. Given the international variances of these teams, cultural considerations become a significant concern and may even be a more important factor in the team’s success than its chosen technologies or working processes.

The ways in which team members communicate and contribute ideas will, to a large part, be driven by their cultural orientation toward interpersonal interactions (Sosik & Jung, 2002). The level of initiative demonstrated by team members may have much more to do with their attitudes toward authority and power than anything related to personal motivation (Hofstede & Hofstede, 2005). Even the content and completeness of communication are impacted by norms that vary widely from one culture to the next. Failure to understand culturally-based differences toward key activities that will be encountered in team formation and process can pose a serious threat to the generation and maintenance of intra-team trust which is critical to the success of international teams (Dubé & Paré, 2001; Gibson & Manuel, 2003).

This chapter will review key considerations of cultural relevance to intra-team trust on international teams. Specifically, this chapter will address how a team’s development and maintenance of intra-team trust is impacted by its members’ views on individualism versus collectivism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and contextually based communication. Each of these cultural dimensions is presented in the sections that follow along with a list of suggestions that team leaders and members can utilize to minimize the adverse impacts that these dimensions can bring to a team.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Contextual Communication: The meaning of messages may or may not depend on the context in which the message originated. High context information is more reliant on an unstated or assumed context for part of its meaning whereas low context communication carries its meaning within the message itself.

Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which the members of a community experience and attempt to avoid anxiety that results from uncertainty defines that community’s level of uncertainly avoidance. Communities that experience high uncertainty avoidance will seek to establish clearly defined rules and processes to guide their decisions and actions. Those with lower levels of uncertainty avoidance are more comfortable if rules and process are less clearly defined and if actions and decisions are more spontaneous.

Power Distance: Power distance is the extent to which individuals within a culture recognize and are comfortable with the distance between themselves and those that they regard as superiors in position or status. Individuals from high power distance cultures accept the fact that privileges have been afforded to those who have been placed in positions regarded as having more importance. Those from low power distance cultures tend to expect a more egalitarian power-sharing structure.

Intra-Team Trust: The extent to which the members of a team regard each other as capable of contributing to the team’s goals and likely to act in a way that supports the interests of the team.

Pseudocommunity: Pseudocommunity is a term that has been used to refer to a team in its early formation stages where the members are cordial to one another and personal and cultural differences are not overtly recognized or valued. Community, over all other concerns, is the priority at this point and individual differences are minimized. Teams will progress from pseudocommunity to chaos, then emptiness, and finally to true community.

Collectivism: People in collectivist cultures define themselves and choose their actions based upon the expectations and norms of a group. Such defining groups may include the family, the church, or a national culture. In collectivistic cultures, an emphasis is placed on those actions and attributes that support the interests of the group.

Individualism: People in individualistic cultures tend to define themselves apart from a group and display individual characteristics and choices. In an individualistic culture, an emphasis is placed on those actions and attributes that support individual freedoms and choices.

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