Functional Culture and Teams’ Work


There are six levels of culture at play in any working environment – national/societal, identity group, organizational, functional, team, and individual. Many organizational leaders seeking to create synergies and increase collaboration among their employees and partners only focus on the national level. However, isolating the functional level of culture is important because there are typically numerous functional divisions in each organization, and there are different behaviors expected, reinforced and rewarded within those divisions.

That cross-functional teams present a unique type of challenge is no surprise to anyone who has ever been a member of one. Rifts between, for example, research and marketing, IT and sales, and human resources and general management are notorious parts of the corporate experience. Understanding that these rifts are the result of cultural gaps at the functional level of culture can help organizational leaders, and the individuals within the different functions, bridge the gaps and create synergies.

During a recent engagement, TMC assisted the product development team of a pharmaceutical company that was underperforming. The leadership at the company suspected the team’s international makeup was what was causing the gaps that led to poor performance. Working with the team and applying the tools offered by the Cultural Orientations Approach proved useful in unexpected ways. Though there were quite a few nationalities represented on the development team, there were also a number of functional units: molecular biologists, immunologists, salespeople and marketing agents. This meant that there were quite a few intersections at which cultural gaps could be found.

We ran an aggregate report of the team’s individual Cultural Orientations Indicator results in order to map and analyze the team members’ personal cultural preferences. In looking at the aggregate report, we discerned distinct cultural differences among the team members along functional lines that clearly cut across nationalities. From this level of increased understanding, we were able to address each of the team’s problem areas from a functional perspective. Firstly, terminology and jargon presented a significant obstacle. In one instance, we realized that team members had been using the acronym PDF over several months only to discover that it had three distinct meanings across the represented functions. We also discovered even deeper cross-functional disconnects as we explored the team members’ perceptions of and attitudes toward risk, decision making, handling conflict, and determination to address problems directly or not.

Of course, understanding functions as cultures and cross-functional interactions with an intercultural perspective does not in itself create better interactions or more effective teams. But it does make a difference to understand that, for instance, a marketing manager or an R&D representative acts in a particular way not because he or she is a difficult person, but because of the different behaviors and attitudes that are expected, reinforced and rewarded within their specific functional group.

Recognizing the cultural nature of different functions’ expected behaviors helps to depersonalize differences. Once these parameters have been established, the cross-functional team members can start a dialogue in which they explore differences, establish guiding principles and agree to make mutual adaptations. This leads to better collaboration, which, of course, is what creates the results organizational leaders are looking for.