What Role Do Norms Play in Global Teamwork? The Influence of Cultural Communication and Coordination Norms on Team Processes in Internationally Distributed Teams




Koehler, Tine

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Internationally distributed teams (IDTs) face many challenges; however, there is a lack of research on what makes IDTs successful. In addition, research has yet to assess how IDTs develop and which team processes facilitate team functioning. Norms have played an important role in team development models of traditional, meaning collocated and homogenous, teams. The current study assesses the role of norms for team development in IDTs. More specifically, this study examines the effects of culture-driven communication and coordination norms on team interactions and on the creation of team norms which subsequently affect team processes such as cohesion, trust, motivation, and commitment. The current study uses a longitudinal, process-oriented, qualitative design to observe student teams during two international collaborations including students from the USA, Finland, and the Germany. Using participant observation, the authors were able to follow team interactions and development over the course of each of the collaborations. Using grounded theory for data analysis, four unique team development patterns emerged from the data, “smooth sailing”, “on & off”, “bumpy start”, and “non-committed” teams. Each of the four patterns had its own characteristics, key turning points, and creation of team norms. The successful teams (i.e., “smooth sailing” and “on & off” teams) showed consistent communication patterns throughout the collaboration and experienced little conflict. They quickly created beneficial team norms that helped them to build rapport between team members, to keep each other motivated and committed to the exchange, and to manage conflict successfully. “Bumpy start” teams encountered conflict early in their team’s history which triggered the creation of conflict management norms. However, they did not manage to create similar levels of rapport, motivation, and commitment as the successful teams. Team members in the “non-committed” teams lacked commitment and motivation from the beginning. These teams failed to maintain consistent communication among team members and to create beneficial team norms. The beginning of the email exchange as well as most of the conflict the teams encountered were influenced by cultural differences in communication norms between the team members. Accordingly, culture-driven communication norms were the basis for many of the team norms that the teams created as a response to their experiences. Implications for practice and future research are discussed.



Internationally distributed teams, Culture-driven communication norms, Team development, Team norms, Cultural differences