There is both good news and bad news to report about teams in China.
Research has shown that Chinese business teams are stronger than business teams in the West, especially as compared to the United States. But in terms of cross-functional team cooperation, the ability of Chinese teams is much weaker than that found in the West.
What Is The Underlying Cause?
My interpretation of this finding is that the reason teams are strong internally in China is because they are representative of a family – and we already know about the strength of the Chinese family. There is an undying loyalty and strong interdependence. This, I believe, has been transferred in the workplace to the team to which an employee belongs.
But just like elsewhere in China, loyalty lessens and hostility increases as you leave the main hub, the family. So, the kind of competition and mistrust that exists between many different families in China also exists between business teams.
I have heard this in nearly every company in which I have consulted. It does not matter if it is a local firm or a multi-national. As long as the employees are primarily Chinese, this phenomenon of strong internal teams compared to weak cross-functional cooperation is very common.
So, the issue for the leader is not to strengthen teamwork. It is already as strong as anywhere in the world. The challenge is to improve the necessary cross-team collaboration that is required to make a company run smoothly.
What Can I Do About It?
Many companies have tried “team-building” exercises aimed at making people work more comfortably across team barriers. Others have used knowledge of team members’ personality types to help each member better understand their own motivations and those of another team’s members.
I have often recommended job rotation. Moving team members, including team leaders, to other teams will have the impact of breaking down some of the barriers that are formed over time. The negative outcome of this is that the rotated team member now has a new learning curve. But in the long run, this approach improves cross-team collaboration.
I suggest doing this in a planned way. Simply hearing the leader explain that we will do this in order to help teams work better together, has a positive impact. This also helps job enrichment, as people do not get stuck in a rut as they might if they stayed on the same team. Regarding team leaders, especially if the teams are essentially serving the same function, I recommend changing team leaders every six to twelve months.
Rather than encouraging inter-team competition such as in sports after work, I recommend building the sports teams with members of several work teams. I also suggest rewarding multi-team progress; not just progress by individual teams. This can be done in an incentive plan, a special bonus plan, or even in the form of a public celebration for multi-team success.
Until Chinese internal teams work better together than they do now, China will be at a disadvantage compared to other countries. It is up to the leader to make this happen.