ATD Blog

How Do You Build Team Spirit When Your Team Is Located Around the World?

Monday, December 30, 2013

In our November blog, John Rafferty, Tom’s colleague in Taiwan, asked questions about team spirit.

  • How well did Tom know his direct reports?
  • What had Tom done to get to know them on a personal level?
  • How was Tom introduced to the team?
  • What had his predecessor told him about who’s who?

Tom couldn’t help but think about what had made him successful in his last position. Back then, he had a great rapport with his team. When he was the sales director for North America team spirit was one of his strengths––everyone was always ready to go the extra mile. Now he seemed to be in a no-man’s land of discomfit.
While in Asia for the electronic trade fairs, Tom decided to take the bull by the horns and visit his office in Hong Kong. Just as he thought about that expression, he started to laugh.

“I really need to avoid those informal idiomatic expressions,” he thought. “How would someone translate that into their native language? It can’t always be easy for those who speak English as a second language.”

Jack Chang, Tom’s direct report in Hong Kong, was pleasantly surprised when he heard about Tom’s 24-hour layover in the city.

While on the phone with Jack, Tom suggested, “I was thinking that instead of business as usual, locked up in the high-rise office all day, we could go out for lunch and visit Kowloon. We can catch up with business in the morning.”

Before this trip Tom had never been to Hong Kong. During his first layover, he was so busy preparing for the trade shows that he didn’t wander far from the hotel or the office. This time, Jack was genuinely pleased to show Tom around, introducing him to everyone as his boss from America. He was even happy to give Tom his first lesson on how to use chopsticks.

By the end of the day, Tom was finally starting to understand the history of Hong Kong. He now understood why the first manager (who was sent from Beijing to Hong Kong) had encountered so many setbacks. In Ohio, the assumption had been that transferring the Chinese manager from Beijing to Hong Kong would be like moving from New York to Los Angeles. Sure, everyone imagined there were some differences, but no one knew how complicated it would be. John and Jack had both shared some very interesting insights into the historical and cultural backgrounds of mainland China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan.


Now settling in for his long flight home, Tom thought about the advice Carlos, his manager back in Ohio, had given him about getting an executive coach with intercultural experience. An article in the in-flight magazine got him thinking even more about how little he really knew about countries other than the United States. He had never taken the time to think about the impact history had on other people’s culture and perspectives.

As he thought about his Hong Kong visit, Tom realized that just by getting out of the office and listening to Jack there had been a definite shift in their relationship. Jack seemed to brighten up as he described some of the memorable achievements of his country and his people.

“What do people do to show respect across cultures?” Tom wondered. Maybe it was not really about protocol, but more about listening to people and the feeling they get from being heard. Taking the time to listen to Jack and show his curiosity led to quality conversations, which naturally leads to quality relationships. Isn’t team spirit all about feeling a sense of belonging? How does being recognized and rewarded for how and what we contribute influence team spirit?

Intercultural research has defined a wide range of communication styles, which vary from indirect, high context, or implicit styles down to more direct, low context, or explicit styles. The first step to becoming an effective global leader is to be aware of your preferred communication style and how it is perceived by others. Take a minute to reflect on these questions:

  • Do people often comment about how clear or direct you are?
  • Do people often ask for clarification or repeat questions about subjects that you thought you had clearly explained?

If you answered “Yes” to A, then you may be perceived as having a direct communication style. If you answered “Yes” to B, you may be coming off as indirect and implicit. Whatever your style, there’s little doubt that communication is key to team spirit, alignment, ownership, and accountability.
Communication is both verbal and non-verbal. When was the last time you actually sat silently in a meeting? Did you count to 10 before jumping in and advocating your point of view? This unconscious desire to show enthusiasm, to add our two cents to every conversation can be ill-perceived. Think back to the last time somebody did that to you? How did you feel—empowered or disempowered?

While researching for my book, Culture Savvy: Working and Collaborating Across the Globe, I discovered that to build effective communication and trust, human nature relies on the 4R principles of respect, relationships, recognition, and rewards. These make up the solid foundation for successful, high-performing teams. We will go more in-depth on these non-verbal behaviors in next month’s blog.

Our continued discussions are helping show what it takes to become an effective global leader. Key ingredients are self-directed awareness, other-directed awareness, active and attuned communication skills, curiosity, and empathy. As a follow-up from our September blog, Tom’s team did meet their objectives. The lithium batteries were delivered on time and trust was now a part of the emerging team spirit. What, in your opinion, did Tom do differently to lead his geographically dispersed team to success? What does team spirit look like in virtual teams?

About the Author

Maureen Rabotin is a certified global executive coach, intercultural and inclusive management training consultant, and keynote speaker. She is the founding director of Effective Global Leadership, and accompanies executives as they navigate the currents of globalization. She also is author of  Culture Savvy: Working and Collaborating Across the Globe (ASTD Press) and A World Book of Values. For further information, go to

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