Disparate Teams. Disparate Cultures. One problem.


Very early in my leadership journey I was given a team of people that my line manager told me where: ‘impossible to deal with’. This was Glasgow during the heady days of the 80’s and I had to bring together a disparate bunch of people who had plenty of problems. They would not listen to new ideas, in fact they just would not listen to anything. Despite many attempts by previous managers to focus this team nothing had worked. Drink, drugs, absenteeism and fighting were par for the course and the only reason that these guys had not been fired was because they were a valuable bunch and we needed them.

What books could tell us the answers here? Where was the management guru that told us how to deal with this situation? Well as part of becoming the ‘Dynamic Leader’ that certain training courses can provide the path to, I had to learn a simple fact. There was no communication. These guys had lost their way and the company had almost totally written them off as a ‘bad bunch’. The saying at the time was that: “They are brilliant, when they are sober”. I had to get them back and I had to figure out how to communicate with them. Now, as people, we judge others based on our own life experiences and beliefs. It’s natural because it’s our only frame of reference. The problem is it is like comparing apples with oranges. Because we are all a product of where we are born, when we are born, and the culture we grow up in, we all see the world differently. We have different beliefs, values, and ethics and different ideas of right, wrong, good and bad.

In addition to different beliefs, we have different communication styles, how we like to send and receive information. Because of these differences, when we judge another person on what we believe and the way we like to communicate we are setting the subject up for failure. As leaders this leaves us with two options: 1 Be frustrated because most everyone around us does not do, act, think and feel the way we think they should. Or 2 Learn the belief systems and communication styles our people employ and how to interact with each individual so they understand what you said, why you said it, and most importantly—they like the way you said it!

In essence I found out what I didn’t know. But now that I had this gem of information I also knew how to get out of the jam I was in. I began by focusing on our core commonality. Whilst we had everything from religious divide to sectarian rivalries we also had some common goals and that was where I started. Employing different communications techniques for individuals in teams sounds like hard work but the results can be astounding. I reviewed each team member individually and worked out a plan relevant to each unique cultural viewpoint that fitted with the overall plan. We focused on results and got senior management to ‘buy in’ to provide a relevant bonus for the team effort. Within a few months (let’s face it there is no quick fix) we were on track. Simple communication allied with understanding of the separate cultural issues had resolved the problems.

With people, there is a method to the madness! There is a way to understand them and even enjoy the interactions. The work place can be highly productive and pleasant. It’s a matter of learning how we function as people and adding the skills that make the interactions easy, effective, and enjoyable. Remember, we all start out not knowing what we don’t know, but successful people, look at their goals and determine what they need to know then seek it out. The tools to help you create highly effective and successful teams are out there.

As a footnote: my team were eventually pretty successful but we did lose people along the way. Some things simply cannot be fixed but I did get several wedding invites and made some life long friends. I would be delighted to hear your views and comments below…..

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