Teamwork has become a fundamental part of our global economy, but that doesn’t mean today’s managers have it easy when it comes to helping their teams work effectively.

There are challenges aplenty — the growth of inter-departmental projects and rapidly proliferating collaboration tools to name just two — precisely at a time when an increasingly distributed labor force makes strong teamwork all the more vital.

The Road to Better Teamwork 

When managers want to up their level of teamwork play, what should they do? To enhance your organization’s approach to teamwork, it will help to be mindful of these five management challenges: 

1. Cultural Differences

The concept of “team” can mean many different things across different cultures. What’s more, our personal definitions of teamwork can often be so deeply ingrained in our day-to-day thinking that it takes a deep familiarity with other cultures to register and understand the dissimilarities. 

For starters, don’t assume that everyone is coming to the table with the same ideas about the value and nature of teamwork. For example, if someone in Taiwan or Southeast Asia wants to start a business, friendship comes first. The philosophy there is that if you can’t be friends with your teammates, you can’t possibly work together. 

In Japan, teams are managed quite differently from teams in the United States, favoring a hands-on approach, especially for start-ups. Japanese managers go “all in” on building and ramping up their teams, hiring lots of salespeople, doing aggressive cold calling and setting up in-person appointments. By contrast, managers in the United States often prefer to network existing teams through video chats and conference calls. 

2. Varied Skill Sets

Not only do team members come from varied backgrounds, they bring with them a range of passions and abilities. You can maximize your team’s capabilities and keep the entire group focused by knowing your individual team members well. 

Remember, too, that just because a given team works under an umbrella title such as “Communications” or “Marketing,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that every team member excels equally at every function. Ask yourself, who’s our engineer, who’s our artist, etc.?  Then do your best to leverage those specific skills to make the overall team stronger.

3. Language Barriers

In addition to the obvious challenges associated with a workforce that’s distributed globally, inter-departmental teams often face their own smaller-scale language barriers. It’s great to see silos between departments come down and watch a new team quickly establish goals and timelines, but it’s vital to align on terminology first. 

Learning Opportunities

Does everyone have a clear understanding of the budget, the timeline, etc.? Do buzzwords mean the same thing to every team member? Creating a shared vocabulary early on will help you avoid confusion and misunderstanding as your team works toward its goals.

4. Recognition and Rewards

Recognition and rewards can have a big impact on team performance but, again, their precise nature is often culturally determined. In Japan, managers stress the concept of “kaizen” — which translates to “continuous improvement” — as a means of providing positive feedback.  

However, that approach may not be as obvious to, or effective with, Westerners since most team members in the United States and Western Europe expect praise and acknowledgement of achievement, often the more public the better.  

5. Tools

With today’s technology, it has never been easier for teams to keep in touch using new tools such as enterprise social networks, to say nothing of old stand-bys such as email and video conferencing. As the list of options expands exponentially, teams need to determine which of these tools works best for their organizations to address different tasks. 

Email can work great one-on-one, for instance, but it falls short for team collaboration because it lacks file sharing and task management capabilities. New messaging tools are beginning to expand their reach, but they need to be adaptable enough to overcome the challenges associated with early adoption. 

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