9.6 The Role of Ethics and National Culture

Learning Objectives

  1. Consider the role of ethics and teams.
  2. Consider teams around the globe.

Ethics and Teams

The use of teams, especially self-managing teams, has been seen as a way to overcome the negatives of bureaucracy and hierarchical control. Giving teams the authority and responsibility to make their own decisions seems to empower individuals and the team alike by distributing power more equitably. Interestingly, research by James Barker shows that sometimes replacing a hierarchy with self-managing teams can actually increase control over individual workers and constrain members more powerfully than a hierarchical system (Barker, 1993). Studying a small manufacturing company that switched to self-managing teams, Barker interviewed team members and found an unexpected result: Team members felt more closely watched under self-managing teams than under the old system. Ronald, a technical worker, said, “I don’t have to sit there and look for the boss to be around; and if the boss is not around, I can sit there and talk to my neighbor or do what I want. Now the whole team is around me and the whole team is observing what I’m doing.” Ronald said that while his old supervisor might tolerate someone coming in a few minutes late, his team had adopted a “no tolerance” policy on tardiness, and members carefully monitored their own behaviors.

Team pressure can harm a company as well. Consider a sales team whose motto of “sales above all” hurts the ability of the company to gain loyal customers (DiModica, 2008). The sales team feels pressure to lie to customers to make sales. Their misrepresentations and unethical behavior gets them the quick sale but curtails their ability to get future sales from repeat customers.

Teams Around the Globe

People from different cultures often have different beliefs, norms, and ways of viewing the world. These kinds of country-by-country differences have been studied by the GLOBE Project, in which 170 researchers collected and analyzed data on cultural values, practices, and leadership attributes from over 17,000 managers in 62 societal cultures (Javidan et al., 2006). GLOBE identified nine dimensions of culture. One of the identified dimensions is a measure called collectivism. Collectivism focuses on the degree to which the society reinforces collective over individual achievement. Collectivist societies value interpersonal relationships over individual achievement. Societies that rank high on collectivism show more close ties between individuals. The United States and Australia rank low on the collectivism dimension, whereas countries such as Mexico and Taiwan rank high on that dimension. High collectivism manifests itself in close, long-term commitment to the member group. In a collectivist culture, loyalty is paramount and overrides most other societal rules and regulations. The society fosters strong relationships in which everyone takes responsibility for fellow members of their group.

Harrison, McKinnon, Wu, and Chow explored the cultural factors that may influence how well employees adapt to fluid work groups (Harrison et al., 2000). The researchers studied groups in Taiwan and Australia. Taiwan ranks high on collectivism, while Australia ranks low. The results: Australian managers reported that employees adapted more readily to working in different teams, working under different leaders, and taking on leadership of project teams than the middle managers in Taiwan reported. The two samples were matched in terms of the functional background of the managers, size and industries of the firms, and local firms. These additional controls provided greater confidence in attributing the observed differences to cultural values.

In other research, researchers analyzed the evaluation of team member behavior by part-time MBA students in the United States and Mexico (Gomez, Kirkman, & Shapiro, 2000). The United States ranks low on collectivism while Mexico ranks high. They found that collectivism (measured at the individual level) had a positive relationship to the evaluation of a teammate. Furthermore, the evaluation was higher for in-group members among the Mexican respondents than among the U.S. respondents.

Power distance is another culture dimension. People in high power distance countries expect unequal power distribution and greater stratification, whether that stratification is economic, social, or political. An individual in a position of authority in these countries expects (and receives) obedience. Decision making is hierarchical, with limited participation and communication. Countries with a low power distance rating, such as Australia, value cooperative interaction across power levels. Individuals stress equality and opportunity for everyone.

Another study by researchers compared national differences in teamwork metaphors used by employees in six multinational corporations in four countries: the United States, France, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines (Gibson & Zellmer-Bruhn, 2001). They identified five metaphors: military, family, sports, associates, and community. Results showed national variation in the use of the five metaphors. Specifically, countries high in individualism (United States and France) tended to use the sports or associates metaphors, while countries high in power distance (Philippines and Puerto Rico) tended to use the military or family metaphors. Further, power distance and collectivistic values were negatively associated with the use of teamwork metaphors that emphasized clear roles and broad scope. These results suggest that the meaning of teamwork may differ across cultures and, in turn, imply potential differences in team norms and team-member behaviors.

Key Takeaway

Self-managing teams shift the role of control from management to the team itself. This can be highly effective, but if team members put too much pressure on one another, problems can arise. It is also important to make sure teams work toward organizational goals as well as specific team-level goals. Teams around the globe vary in terms of collectivism and power distance. These differences can affect how teams operate in countries around the world.


  1. Have you ever felt pressure from team members to do something you didn’t want to do? If so, how did you handle it?
  2. In what ways do you think culture can affect a team?


Barker, J. R. (1993, September). Tightening the iron cage: Concertive control in self-managing teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 38, 408–437.

DiModica. P. (2008, March 13). Managing sales team ethics and sales morality. Value Forward Group. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from http://www.valueforward.com/20080313.html.

Gibson, C. B., & Zellmer-Bruhn, M. E. (2001). Metaphors and meaning: An intercultural analysis of the concept of teamwork. Administrative Science Quarterly, 46(2), 274–303.

Gomez, C., Kirkman, B. L., & Shapiro, D. L. (2000). The impact of collectivism and in-group/out-group membership on the evaluation generosity of team members. Academy of Management Journal, 43(6), 1097–1106.

Harrison, G. L., McKinnon, J. L., Wu, A., & Chow, C. W. (2000). Cultural influences on adaptation to fluid workgroups and teams. Journal of International Business Studies, 31(3), 489–505.

Javidan, M., Dorfman, P., Sully de Luque, M., & House, R. (2006, February). In the eye of the beholder: Cross cultural lessons in leadership from Project GLOBE. Academy of Management Perspectives, 20, 67–90.

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