We all know that it is true. People from India always say yes. People from Eastern Europe always say no. The French are arrogant and a Swede cannot make a simple decision even if their life depends on it.
But wait… our close friends and long-time colleagues born and raised in these countries are not like that at all! At least that is my personal experience and what many around me have said, time and time again. So how can this be?
In this article, I will argue that the reason for this apparent contradiction is all about team and relationship maturity. And I find that team maturity is best described by Susan Wheelan’s Integrated Model of Group Development. You may know it from the phrase “Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing”.
I will argue that cultural stereotypes are highly relevant in the Forming and Storming phases, but then have very little significance in the Norming phase and almost no significance in the Performing phase.
When we first meet and interact with new people, we are in the Forming stage. In the Forming stage, humans as a rule tend to look for clear instructions for what to do and how to act. In the Forming stage, traditional politeness is our guiding star. If we see anyone in the group act out any behaviour that deviates from what we consider to be traditional politeness it immediately makes us very uncomfortable. But what we consider to be traditional politeness is by its very nature very much dependent on what culture we have been raised in.
So in this early Forming stage, we really need an experienced guide who can navigate and translate the politeness cultures of all team members. Mixing people from different cultures without a guide of this kind will definitely cause friction.
But we don’t want our teams to stay in the Forming stage, cultural differences or not, because it is not a very efficient stage to be in. We want them to reach at least the Norming, or preferably the Performing stage where the teams really start producing high-quality work. And to get there, they go through the dreaded Storming phase.
What is the Storming phase really about? Ask someone on the street and they might say that all teams descend into bitter conflicts. And that usually happens. But it is not mandatory, and even when it happens, the conflict is just a symptom.
People experienced in working with teams know that the Storming phase really is about team members putting all cards on the table to be able to agree on what rules shall apply to the team. That can happen in a shouting match, or in a calm discussion.
What we do in that shouting match, or preferably discussion, is to begin replacing the traditional politeness we have been taught while growing up with a new set cultural rules. Once we have these new cultural rules, our previous traditional politeness suddenly matters a lot less. And this is the true purpose and meaning of the Storming phase and the team can now move into the Norming phase where we see the first real uptick in productivity.
At this stage, our new team culture is still in its infancy and as anyone with experience knows, old habits will still pop back. When this happens, the team typically moves back to the Storming phase for a bit. And this can and typically will happen more than once.
But in this Norming phase, with its occasional lapses back into Storming, this infant team culture gets polished and solidified until one day it is consistent and robust. And this is the day that the team moves into that Holy Grail of all teamwork, the Performing phase.
So if you hear complaints about cultural stereotypes getting in the way of work, or that idea pops into your head, then you can remind yourself that the cultural stereotypes are not the problem.
The problem is that your team is not in fact a cohesive team, but simply a group of people in the early Forming stage. But the good news is that your team has not yet reached its full potential, and have a lot more to give if given proper guidance and a bit of time.