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Studies Show Why Global Teams Struggle

April 24, 2016

In multinational businesses, team members often have to communicate information to colleagues located across the globe. But for a host of reasons, information sharing and collaboration often doesn’t happen as effectively as it should.

This article references two studies to identify strategies for improving global team performance and ensure success: one conducted in 2014 by Target Training International, Ltd. on the behavioral style and personal motivator norming patterns by country using over 190,000 records from 14 countries; and a 2015 study by Martine Haas from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Jonathon Cummings of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business.

Martine Haas was curious about precisely which issues were most responsible for impairing vital communication in multinational companies, and what could be done to improve it. She and Jonathon Cummings revealed what they learned in their paper, “Barriers to Knowledge Seeking within MNC Teams: Which Differences Matter Most?”, published in the Journal of International Business Studies.

Seeking that better understanding, Haas and Cummings surveyed more than 2,000 members of about 289 teams that worked globally for a large multinational company.

Findings from Haas and Cumming’s study show that geographic differences and working in different parts of the company’s structure had the greatest impact preventing people from collaborating with others.

“This research was motivated by the idea that multinationals work in teams to get their work done, but a high percentage of multinational teams struggle to succeed. We know that is a big problem in lots of organizations”, stated Haas. “You’ve got people all around the world who are not sharing information and knowledge as much as they could. So we’re trying to figure out: Why is that? What are some of the problems that these teams face? And how can they be overcome?

The particular focus of the Haas-Cummings study is on the extreme diversity. “We talk about four different kinds of diversity: 1) people from different geographic locations 2) people of different nationalities 3) people who work in different parts of their organizations — we call them structural differences and 4) people are demographically diverse — age, gender, tenure in the company and years of experience.”

The fact that the study revealed geography and organizational structure differences as the culprits to effective communication and collaboration surprised Wharton management professor Haas, who says that while different nationalities and geographic distances often are viewed as barriers to better communication, structural barriers within an organization wasn’t expected. “It appears that when it comes to team communication and collaboration,  working in different countries and structural differences — working in different parts of the organizational structure — mattered.”

“We know that when people on one team speak different languages, it’s a big deal. Managers tend to focus on some of the most obvious things that are really salient when you’re internationally dispersed,” she says. “But the structural stuff, for example, which we found to be surprisingly important, we don’t think about as much in a global team.”

She also explains that while nationality differences do matter, they aren’t as important as the actual physical distance between workers.

These people are also coming from different parts of the organization usually and we found this was a really strong — to some extent, the strongest — barrier. So the fact that people worked in different divisions in the organization — different functional areas or different business units — those kinds of differences were really problematic for the members of those teams. And, I think, that was the most surprising to us, given that the focus of many studies is usually on nationality and geography.

“If we’re in the same country and we’re different nationalities it’s actually not a very big deal. If we’re in different countries — even if we’re the same nationality — that’s a big deal,” she says. “But the good news and the key findings were that if you had worked together before in a team, you could get over to some extent those geographic and structural barriers.”

A key factor for project team success depends on team members having established  relationships prior to the start of the project.

Two key takeaways from the Haas-Cummings study for those managing multinational teams [HR/Talent Management might also take heed here]:

  • Managers tend to focus on some of the most obvious things that are really salient when you’re internationally dispersed such as different time zones, languages but may be missing the big elephant in the room – the company’s own internal structure.
  • When building teams and launching projects, it is relatively easy and inexpensive (compared to the cost of failure) to bring the team together at the beginning for goal setting, planning and team building with an emphasis on having team members work together and providing an introduction of each cross-functional area. Key functional executives can present an overview of their organization, their key accountabilities and their specific goals/interests/expectations for the project. These executives can also address known barriers to success (their concerns) as well as facilitate a discussion around the team’s concerns to identify barriers and counter-measures to ensure barriers are broken down.

In April of 2014, Bill Bonnstetter, Rick Bowers and Ron Bonnstetter, Ph.D. of Target Training International, Ltd, a global assessment company specializing in the Science of Self and organizational performance, presented two key studies focused on individual behavioral style and personal motivators across countries. In their whitepapers, Using Big Data to Better Appreciate Cultural Differences, they examined the behavioral norms of 10 countries and the personal motivator norms of 14 countries. Their primary goal was related to continued improvement of assessments and provide industry leadership in the realm of global norms. The full results of their findings has been embedded within proprietary systems and intellectual property.

While these results provide accurate impressions of cultural lifecycles, they are not meant to be used to stereotype or mischaracterize one country, but to shed general light on each culture’s uniqueness.

“Behavioral style and personal motivation assessments and neurology have taught us that all people are unique based on a combination of nature and nurture. Our gene pool sets the stage, and lifelong personal experiences establish our individuality.” states Ron Bonnstetter. “Companies based in the United States may have a WEIRD bias, that is, Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic. Expecting global project teams to  have great communication and collaboration skills without some level of investment in initial and sustaining team development is simply a WEIRD expectation with great potential for project team failure.”

Target Training International, Ltd. (TTI) used over 190,000 records to study world-wide norms. To analyze the data, TTI developed proprietary software. Countries studied include the USA, France, Russia, Brazil, Sweden, Netherlands, Mexico, Spain, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, Italy, China and Turkey. TTI research has identified different norms for behavioral style* and personal motivators* from nation to nation due to their unique language and shared cultural experiences. These differences cry out for their own expression. It has been well established through extensive studies and experience in performance management and organizational development that behavioral differences are a key to breakdowns in communication and collaboration within organizations. This includes challenges that are faced by global project teams.

*TTI’s behavioral assessment is based on Marston’s DISC model. TTI’s personal motivation assessment is based on the work of Spranger, Allport and Vernon.

Table 1 shows the uniqueness of Russia’s and China’s D population breakdowns. Twenty-three percent of Russians possess a high D behavioral segment, which is slightly higher than all other countries examined. On the other hand, China shows 11 percent high D behavioral segment, which is considerably lower than all the other countries examined.


Table 1


 Personal Motivators Study Sample Data

Motivators USA-favs-April 2014

Table 3 – USA Most/Least Popular Motivator Statements

Motivators USA-Russia-favs-April 2014

Table 4 – USA compared to Russian Motivators

The research proves that every country is unique and with its own behavior and motivator norms.

Two key takeaways from the TTI international norming studies for those managing multinational teams:

  • A WEIRD bias creates a blinded view of the true needs of project teams to understand personal motivators and behavioral style – to have a sense of self and then understand, recognize and adapt to difference behavioral styles and personal motivators.
  • When building teams and launching projects, it is relatively easy and inexpensive (compared to the cost of failure) to bring the team together at the beginning for goal setting, planning and team building with an emphasis on having team members work together and providing assessments, team analysis and training on the DISC styles and personal motivators of the team.

As members of a global village and marketplace, we need not to only foster awareness of the unique diversity of culture, but also engender understanding of those diversities. Greater understanding of unique world cultures and perspectives will lead to enhanced opportunities to collaborate and grow as individuals, as economies and as a world community.

Leaders of multinational teams must be alert for a variety of problems that can crop up for multinational teams, so they can work proactively to improve them instead of just relying on a cookie-cutter approach. Team building just got bigger and more complicated.

Carl Nielson, managing principal of The Nielson Group, works with multinational project teams, leadership teams and cross-functional teams to ensure team and individual success. A favorite offering is a customized New Team Fast Start program. For more information about The Nielson Group go here.

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