Teamwork Essentials in the 21st Century: And It’s Not About Technology

When I first started my corporate career, teamwork skills were perceived as a “nice-to-have”.  Most assumed a team was fundamentally driven by one person who would direct the rest of the team.  Teams were mainly comprised of Americans. While including the opinions of others was appropriate, it wasn’t deemed to be essential for success.  Much has changed in 20 years.  Especially in our “flat world” where people from around the globe share responsibility for outcomes, teamwork has become an imperative for success.  It matters, whether you’re in a university or in a corporation. At business graduate schools where international student populations have skyrocketed, it’s a norm to see students from 5 different countries working together on a project.  In corporations, especially in knowledge-intensive industries, professionals crisscross the world everyday in their virtual teams where individuals from 4 different functions and 3 different regions must collaborate to launch a new business.

More than ever, protocols, operating principles and clear goals are critical to a team’s effectiveness.  It’s not just about the process.  It’s about the people.  Teams thrive when everyone feels included and respected.  But with global teams, it can be tricky to achieve because individuals express themselves so differently.  If we look at geographic culture as an example, where a team member from the US tends to be much more self-expressive and publicly opinionated than her team member from China, who tends to listen more and talk much less in comparison, it may seem, at first glance, that the American is getting buy-in from her team member because her Chinese team mate has not expressed disagreement.  But unless the American team member explicitly asks her Chinese counterpart, preferably in private, she won’t get an accurate gauge because she is looking through her own “lens” of communicating preferences rather than understanding how her team mate’s cultural norms would dictate expressing disagreement.

Team effectiveness is driven more by EQ and CQ (emotional and cultural intelligence) than IQ. Why? Because it’s the interpersonal skills that will draw out the fullest intelligence of the team.  Setting operating principles, protocols and clear team goals are critical processes to ensure team members from varying backgrounds and preferences are truly engaged.  Effective team building takes thought.  It takes time. It takes a willingness on everyone’s part to sympathize and seek understanding.  Perhaps one of the greatest opportunity for effective team building and team engagement, in our 24/7 world is to be able to be fully present to the words, meaning and needs expressed by another team member.  Listening and seeking to understand first, before we act and advance can make the difference between a team that exists and a team that excels.