Intercultural Management: Managing teams across cultures and borders (III): A reader's comments turns into an interesting discussion!
Roger L. posted an exhaustive comment October 30th on the post Intercultural Management (II) that I wanted to bounce off on and discuss. As that is apparently not possible to do, it appears in toto below, interspersed with our comments and reactions.
Thank you, Roger, for opening up the first discussion on the Zone!
This is a good story, and it illustrates some sound management and organizational principles. But I think you're placing too much of the blame on the boss, Benoit, and not enough on Steve.
As far as the initial email (sent on Wednesday) is concerned, the "when" is adequately defined by Benoit when he says that he wants his report by the end of the following week. Any responsible subordinate would know, or at the very least assume, that this means by Friday, latest, and would therefore try to get the report out by Thursday, or Friday morning (boss' time). I think that when you criticize Benoit's email by asking "WHEN: What is ‘end of next week’? What day, what time, in what time zone?" you are putting too much of the onus on the boss to be overly specific, when there's no need to be. (Of course, if he did want it by, say, Thursday morning at 9:00am his time, and didn't say so, then he would be at fault for not getting it on time. But he didn't, so the subordinate can safely conclude that the deadline is what I said above.)
You also criticize Benoit for not being specific enough in his request, in that he only says that he wants a "status report" on Widget 913, without further details. I disagree. A "give me a status report" message can admittedly be somewhat vague, but if it appears that way to the subordinate, then that person should just put him/herself in the boss' shoes, imagine what is of import to the boss, and do the best under the circumstances. If the most important points are covered (e.g., production schedule, cost or customer issues, any other problems) then chances are the boss will be happy with the report.
As far as blaming Benoit for not informing the other team members of his request is concerned, that may be considered an oversight, and not the best practice in a perfect world, but any problem caused by this could easily be overcome by Steve forwarding the email himself to his two colleagues. (More on this later.)
Lastly, you define as a problem the fact that Benoit did not define each team member's responsibilities. You say: "What is each of them supposed to do (i.e.: who does what?)? Who holds overall responsibility?...." Yes, if Benoit had the inclination, he could have written more on those topics, but it seems to me that by sending his email to Steve, he more or less put him in charge of gathering the information and generating the report, and Steve should have assumed as much.
So, all in all, I think that Benoit could have sent more details on the "who, what, when, and why" but I don't think he deserves as much of the blame that you place on him in your example.
Indeed, I would blame Steve the most for the ensuing problems. The first thing he should have done, having noted that Benoit did not copy the other two team members on his email, would be to send them the email himself. He should have written something like "I just got this from Benoit, and I'm sharing it with you in case he didn't send you separate copies. Let's talk tomorrow morning. I'll call you." In other words, he should have immediately gone into action, assuming that being the only recipient of Benoit's request gave him some degree of authority and responsibilty regarding the status-report project, Instead, like some somnolent dork, he wastes a whole day just waiting to hear from Gunter, for reasons I cannot fathom. (Actaully, he probably just freaked out and froze.) He then emails Benoit for clarification, but getting no response, he gets stressed and starts to send emails to his colleagues that reflect his anger and frustration, and that (rightfully so) starts to piss them off. Matters get worse, with Gunter dragging his feet on getting Steve the needed information, and Michelle withdrawing as far as she can from this boondoggle. I don't blame them. With a fool like Steve apparently running things, I would not be too cooperative either.
You conclude, and rightfully so, that a source of all the problems is that "Before this episode, this GVT suffered from a lack of team identity and shared culture. They had never met as a group nor determined collectively the best practices they needed to respect in order to work effectively together."
As a result "At this juncture, this GVT is mired in petty unspoken conflict that, if left unresolved, will continue to plague its performance and that of each of its members. Mutual trust and respect needs to be restored."
You're right. If a team is formed within an organization for a project or goal-specific purpose, it would be pretty silly if they didn't make an effort to meet, or at least to hold conference calls from time to time in order to get to know each other. (Benoit, as the boss, is definitely at fault here, if this was never done, and he never encouraged them to do it.)
On the other hand, I think you need to emphasize an issue that your story illustrates, which is "communication." I think that if I had to boil down your example to its essentials, I would say that the primary cause of the initial confusion and the subsequent problems was the method of communication, mainly EMAILS!
Benoit started it with his vague one, Steve expected one from Gunter that he never got, Benoit never answered Steve's, and Steve sent nasty ones to Gunter and Michele.
Wouldn't it have been easier if Benoit had just called Steve at the outset and answered any questions Steve might have had, on the spot? Wouldn't it have been more effective for Steve to call Gunter and/or Michele (a conference call perhaps? --not a bad or a mad thing to do) to share Benoit's message, discuss the outline of the report, and agree on who would do what?
I could say more, but suffice it to say that I have seen untold damage being done through emails, when verbal communication would have been just as easy, and much more effective. But, restricting myself to your example, I would enunciate one important principle regarding communications via email: If there's any doubt that the recipient might not understand what you say, or might need more information, either communicate verbally in the first instance, or at the very least conclude the email with "If you need further information or have any questions, call me"!!!
The phone still exists, and has not been made obsolete by emails. Let's not forget that.