Most business requires teamwork.  And championship level business requires teamwork that transcends mere cooperation and collaboration.  Great teams have each other’s backs, allowing them to collectively exceed the performance of the mere sum of their individual performances.

A team is just a club if the commitment does not include a the willingness to sacrifice.
A team is just a club if the commitment does not include a the willingness to sacrifice.

Unfortunately, few companies achieve true teamwork despite the massive training and effort they put into it.  Look past the fluffy language of the annual report, the employee newsletter, and the company web portal and you’ll find few companies where employees are willing to sacrifice their own personal interests in the interest of the team.  (Without personal sacrifice a team is just a club.  They may win games, but they won’t win championships.)

In China true teamwork, families excluded, is a rare commodity indeed, a reality that often escapes new ex-patriate managers who easily confuse obligation and commitment.  In a culture where personal choice is often sublimated to cultural norms, programmed behavior is easily mistaken for the exercise of free will.

It is common, for example, for department colleagues to share lunch together in the company canteen each day.   It appears to be voluntary and may lead to the conclusion, as it might in the U.S., that there is a favorable chemistry among the members.  The lunch break, after all, is free time.  By definition, it is assumed, employees are exercising free will in making the conscious choice to share that time together.

That would be a logical conclusion in a Western environment, where employees generally spend their free time with colleagues they enjoy the company of.  (Sure, brown-nosing is alive and well in the West but that’s not exactly ‘free’ time in the sense I’m using the term here.)  In China, however, such behavior is the cultural norm and cultural norms are quite deep-rooted.  They aren’t violated lightly.

In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Chinese divers took Gold in 7 out of 8 events.
In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games Chinese divers took Gold in 7 out of 8 events

The Chinese themselves are well aware of their inability to work well in teams.  Again displaying their refreshing sense of self-awareness they often joke about the lackluster results generally achieved by their national sports teams.  While they dominate individual sports like diving, gymnastics, and table tennis they seldom achieve such success in team sports like football or basketball, despite the fact that both sports enjoy enormous popularity here.

In Olympic football, the Chinese men's team didn't make it out of the preliminaries.  The women's team fared better but lost to Japan in the quarterfinals.
In Olympic football, the Chinese men’s team didn’t make it out of the preliminaries. The women’s team fared better but lost to Japan in the quarterfinals.

Most experienced ex-patriate managers, as a result, will tell you that while it is easy to achieve the appearance of teamwork within a work group, it is extremely difficult to achieve true collaboration across work groups.  And while I am still attempting to fully understand the root cause of this universal reality, I do believe there are two factors that greatly contribute to its pervasiveness.

The first, of course, is the one-child policy that China has now followed for a full generation.  This policy has created what demographers and economists refer to as the 4-2-1 challenge.  In a country that offers little public social support, children are expected to take care of their aging relatives.  That means, however, that a single child could be responsible for the care of two parents and four grandparents, a reality increasingly common with an aging population and increasing access to modern health care.

It also means, of course, that every child is an only-child, facing the same developmental pressures relating to sharing, dispute resolute, and cooperation that every only-child around the world faces.  In this case, however, since nearly all children are only-children, Chinese children don’t just lack siblings.  They lack cousins and aunts and uncles as well.  And they acquire their social skills and behaviors from parents who are both only-children themselves.

No one knows for sure what ultimate impact this has on the ability of the adult population to cooperate and collaborate in the workplace.  And, to be fair, Chinese ethnicity seems to provide strong family-like bonds that I have witnessed in few other cultures.  Still, one has to believe that the one child policy contributes to ‘one-adult’ behavior in the workplace.

Chinese students prepare their entire lives for one exam.
Chinese students prepare their entire lives for one exam.

The second factor that inherently impedes team building is the education system.  Chinese children spend the first 18 years of their lives preparing for a single exam, the National College Entrance Examination, commonly known as Gaokao.  This one exam determines which schools will be available to them and which career paths they, in turn, will have access to.

The pressure on parents and children alike is difficult to overestimate.  (Again remember that the child will be expected to take care of the parents in their old age.)  It is a system that is, by necessity, designed to allocate the scarce resource of higher education to the most deserving and, by proxy, the most potentially productive for society as whole.

It is not, therefore, a system designed to promote teamwork or collaboration.  Quite the opposite.  It promotes cut-throat competition between the contestants.  It is, in the vernacular of gaming theory, a zero-sum game.  Your absolute score on the exam is essentially irrelevant.  Only your relative score matters.  You can only get that coveted spot at the best university if your neighbor or classmate does not.  You can’t both ‘win.’

Which perhaps explains why the education system itself does not promote the acquisition of team-oriented social skills.  According to my Chinese colleagues, Chinese students are not taught to cooperate; they are taught to listen and absorb.  Discipline, rather than cooperation, is the academic model of success Chinese students are taught to aspire to.

So how do you develop true teamwork in such an environment?

I could, of course, stop here and force you to come back for the answer.  And I will do that, to a degree, since I know that you have limited time and, perhaps, limited patience, for appropriately lengthy answers to complicated questions.

Suffice it to say, for now, that you do the same thing in China that you should do anywhere else in the world.  Only here you do it harder and longer.

Define a vision that links their aspirations with the success of the team.
Define a vision that links their aspirations with the success of the team.

First, you must define an end game that has something in it for them.  Show them how collaboration can help them achieve their own very personal goals more quickly and effectively.

Secondly, live that vision in your daily behavior.  For reasons I have discussed elsewhere the Chinese will never judge you by your words.  They will only judge you by your performance.  You want to lead?  Show them you know how to win.

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, let them taste the bounty of shared success.  In the end there are few lone wolves among us.  For most people, Chinese and Westerner alike, the satisfaction of shared success is the most fulfilling success of all.  Help them to take their first bite of the apple and they will enthusiastically embrace the teamwork you seek and need to forge your own championship team.

No success is more satisfying than shared success.
No success is more satisfying than shared success.

Copyright © 2013 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

2 thoughts on “Teamwork

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