Over 90% of what we learn about team performance comes from literature, research and case studies of American or English origin. This is a very good thing, but incomplete, when you consider local relevance. It’s not only about Romania, but also about more than half of this world, and all the people who don’t have a performance culture based on Anglo-Saxon cultural landmarks.
Among a few significant particularities, here I will only address one, which I find the most important. For some while now, until recently, in the practice and research of team performance in Western culture, trust laid at the foundation of the performance pyramid in a team.
For teams to optimally function in Eastern cultures, trust is just as necessary as in the Western cultures, but not sufficient. We need something more. I remember a foreign client with extensive operations in Romania, a few thousand employees, who aimed at an ambitious process of organizational transformation. Usually, in such a project, I talk to people from all levels of the organization, in interviews and focus groups. Here, when I asked the people “what displeases you the most about what you see or hear from the colleagues around you?”, the answer was the upsetting frequency with which so many employees were saying “it’s non of my business”. A lot of things were left undone, unfixed, or even unnoticed, because more and more employees considered that was non their business to deal with them. This obviously affected everyone’s performance.
I generally resist the temptation to rapidly jump to the conclusion that the problem is where one can see it. As I explored the subject in greater depth, I found that many employees perceived that the organization treats them in a transactional manner, as expendable resources, and they couldn’t see any reason why they should care about an organization which didn’t care about them.
Eastern cultures are, generally, collectivistic cultures, which greatly value the intensity of the relationships among those close. Here, in order to give your best in a team, trust must be doubled by care – the feeling that others care about you as a human being, before caring about you as a human resource. This, in turn, makes you care, and makes everything around you also become “your business“. I still remember the number of raised eyebrows around the room where I presented the conclusions of the report in front of the foreign managers, when I told them that, their organization in Romania, if they wanted to improve performance in, they needed to improve relationships.
But the problem becomes more complicated in practice, when we have to maintain a proper balance between trust and care in a team. This is because, counterintuitively, they are often mutually exclusive. I remember another client, the Romanian branch of a global IT company. I was working with the local board, a multicultural team, with five nationalities in the room. When we got to the topic of “trust”, one of the foreigners said that we shouldn’t linger on the subject for too long, because things were going really well, they all trusted each other a lot. The response of a Romanian lady, a division’s director was: ”Yes, it’s true, but I sometimes wish that people in this room trusted me less”.
At this point, the number of raised eyebrows was exactly the double of the number of people present, myself included. I asked her to elaborate a bit. And she went on to say that she often happened to meet colleagues on the board who asked her how things were going, and she said things were well, everything was going as planned, and then they smiled contentedly and moved on. And she felt that as long as she delivered, nobody really cared how hard it was for her, if she had problems, if she needed help, if she was well or on the brink of burnout. And she was thinking that, if she were to not deliver so well anymore, if she didn’t benefit from such unconditional trust, maybe the others would start taking an interest in herself as a person, they would start caring about what she was going through. The result of her intervention was that we dived more in-depth on the topic in order to find an optimal solution for the entire team.
So, the natural temptation in teams is that, the more you trust a member, the less inclined you are to be preoccupied about the personal situation behind his/her performance. But the reverse is often also true. The better I know a member of the team, the closer I get and care more about him or her, the more tempted I am to find excuses and mitigating factors for performance drops. Left unaddressed, these underperforming situations can pile up and generate significant team turmoil related to trust. Which then affects relationships, and so on.
I don’t think there is a general formula for the relationship between trust and care in teams, but I think each team has an optimal formula that can be found. The team only has to become aware of its importance and to dedicate time, method and energy to finding and keeping it. If they don’t, then performance becomes more a torment than a joy.