Teamwork : Teamwork: A new twist to old Asian collectivism

Henry Astorga is a corporate educator and trainer by vocation and a business writer by avocation. For two decades, he has layered his competencies in the fields of business and media communication over his professional practice of client training and learning programme design, and more recently in the area of management communication structured along Action Learning schemas. Currently, he is Chief Course Developer – Facilitator at Achievemate Learning Centre, a management learning and development practice. His present work centers on methods and applications of managerial learning and workforce development strategies using Action Learning project principles.

Henry is also a columnist with the Asia Pacific Management Forum. His column, East West Strategies – appearing monthly in the Asian Strategy & Intelligence E-magazine section – covers workforce learning and development issues affecting Asian workers and professionals in the USA.


He holds an M.A. in Language and Communication from Regis University in Denver, In addition, he holds a Graduate credential in Adult Education and Professional Training from the same institution. He is a Fellow and member of the On-line faculty of the International Management Centres (IMCA) and its constituent business school, University of Action Learning (UAL) at Boulder, CO. He holds a Fellow standing at the Institute of Training and Occupational Learning in the UK, and is pursuing a post graduate program in adult learning and professional studies at the University of Surrey in the UK.


Henry resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and can be contacted through or

We have to give it to the West, it sure developed an ingenious way to package and operationalize a concept and practice that has incontrovertible traces of Eastern fingerprints all over it. Long before Kurt Lewin tinkered with group dynamics in the 40's at MIT, Lao Tzu and his assistants over twenty-six centuries ago were already extolling the virtues of collaboration and group effort complete with the veneration for life, nature, and space. For the most part, as we practitioners of group learning and management know so well, credit and accolade are now ascribed to Lewin especially when groups and collective behaviors are talked about.

We shall note some highlights of Asian family collective observances and then venture into today's practices of team building that are ever so familiar to Western corporate environments. We'll then pinpoint "old" approaches and layer them over "new" practices and see show how they blend quite effortlessly. We'll take five common general characteristics that are commonly visible when modern work teams interact and pursue a common goal and then watch the way they play out in most work group settings and see how they parallel the age-old Asian collectivist practices.

Here are some common modern-day team building features:

  1. Mutual dependency - this is when a group of individuals cast aside selfsame interests and focus their efforts toward a unified goal.
  2. Designated roles - means when each member is aware of one's function and attendant contribution to the group process.
  3. Adherence to guidelines - states that both implicit and explicit rules that have been unilaterally agreed to by the group are expected to be followed.
  4. Planned work - suggests that there exist parameters and deliverables.
  5. Worked plans - defines to implementation strategies required to reach common objectives.

At first glance, one can handily proclaim that all the mentioned characteristics are those found in workaday manuals and by no means can it ever even be linked to practices that go back to over 2500 years. It begs the question that if the notion were indeed that old and commonly practiced over the millennia, why then has it never hit the front pages of academic and trade presses the moment Guttenberg released his invention, or even shortly after? The answer is quite simple and sobering: America constitutes only 5% of the world's learning population, but remarkably produces over 95% of the world's educational research products. Add to that a promotional media machine that is second to none, and an educational reputation that is the envy of the rest of the world, it becomes understandably clear why some very early seminal works especially those of "antediluvian" origins get easily supplanted.

Here's a short description of uncannily close collectivist behavior measure up to current group work features.

Mutual Dependency

Group orientation happens to be a significant attribute of the collectivist Asian family. Led by the father, he assumes an obligation to the family while children are expected to express a sense of duty to the parents. The consequence is a prominence placed on family interests or group identity thus subjugating one's personal identity. This practice was evident in ancient Japan and other countries like India, Korea, Philippines, and China. We can still find this practice today among families in these Asian societies where parents choose for their children what professions they get into. In exchange for a child's obedience the family throws its unqualified support. Also, the family takes pride and ownership in the child's success; in return, the child is expected to show a debt of gratitude by giving credit to the family and extend help by supporting other siblings. Modern team building shows traces of this noted interdependency. In most university projects, for example, Professors issue grades to members of a learning team in equal weights. The lesson is to express their grades on the basis of equality as opposed to equity. This teaches the team to discipline its ranks and manage its social loafers by making clear that every member is expected to carry one's weight and those who don't must be dealt with accordingly within the confines of the group agreed sanctions. Corporate work groups display the similar characteristics and can be seen in how their work projects becomes expressions and bases of future work evaluations, pay raises, promotions, new project assignments.

Role Designation

Role designation within an Asian collective as a matter of practice is usually clear and indisputable especially when it refers to leadership. In a patriarchal Asian family, the father leads and defines goals; he also keeps the goals clearly and constantly articulated; he also heads rituals and other observances. This appears rather imperious, but one thing is unmistakably evident: the father's role is unambiguous. The members of the family, likewise, play supportive roles as they mutually work toward a common ambition for the family. This includes efforts that support the family enterprise or those designed to see one family member succeed either in school or some communal activity. This leadership role sets the tone for the family and serves as an indicator of how the family is measuring up to its plans.

In contemporary organizations, leadership becomes the barometer of both the organization's climate and culture. Just as the patriarchal role of the father determines the atmosphere for the rest of the family members, so does the modern-day CEO, President, or team leader. To illustrate, the President of Southwest Airlines, who advocates the relaxed T-shirt and short pants dress style and the customer-first mentality is now reaping dividends from his people's stellar performance. Thanks to the leadership role he has modeled so expertly. As proof, the company boasted carrying 2318 passengers per employee just a few years ago outperforming American Airlines, a national carrier, which carried only 848 passengers per employee. This record performance by Southwest is not an aberration; it is in fact a testimony to how a well-performed leadership role can clearly provide the rest of the corporate staff its own self-defining functions. In equally progressive companies, effective leadership is defined in terms of its collective nature. This spirit resonates from as far atop the board rooms to as far down field stations. Let's take a closer look at work groups. This unit provides a powerful influence on each group member's level of interest, responsibility and participation. It not only serves as a means to ensure the members' job by producing the necessary output for the organization it also offers a social home base for its members. As can be seen here, the work group or "team" becomes a conglomeration of personalities bound by a common goal and look to each other for support and assistance. Just like the Asian family of old (and recently formed), work groups cherish specialized skills but expect sharing of ideas, responsibilities, and rewards.

Adherence to Guidelines

This presents a rather dichotomous condition for both Asian collectivism and modern work teams. In Asian collectivist tradition, guidelines are paramount if not sacrosanct. In modern team building, however, in spite of its shared and assumed mutual rule-making policy, members are expected to follow rules and procedures. Rule breaking is seen as an affront to the rest of the group which can trigger sanctions.

But how can modern work groups that operate under an atmosphere of freedom, self-expression adopt such stern conformity to rule-observance? McKinsey and Company's "uncertainty" specialists offer a plausible answer to this perplexing situation. They contend that ill-defined problems and highly chaotic business environments demand radical measures. By extension, this applies to instituting rules to make sure that company goals are met while at the same time allowing a contingent policy of having the option to discard the rule book and abide by one's instinct. This polarized view allows managers to deal with uncertainty by observing a rigorously planned and defined template but also allows them to consider options and competing solutions when times look grim. Asian patriarchs shape the future of their families with a set of highly articulated rules and procedures with the honest objective of seeing each member succeed. However, their non-linear thinking mode also gives them the latitude to change the rules in times of crises living up to the image of being "pliant like the bamboo". We can see that modern team building blends its intrepid spirit with the sure-step only approach of Asian collectivism and that the practice works the other way as well. This is perhaps the defining point that links today's team building concepts and fundamental tenets of Asian collectivism.

Planned Work

Today's work teams operate under a scorecard which helps them keep track of their performance. As performance units, teams are ultimately judged for its deliverables, financial health, overall project success, and relationships built. Precise dollar figures must be accounted for and given equivalence in terms of output produced. Similarly, the Asian collectivist structure embodied control and constant monitoring. It enabled the patriarch to scan the performance of his family members and measure them against the family's agreed upon goals. This practice is not unlike today's work teams that operate out of a collectively formulated plan. They have one eye on the present task and another on the next level. This peripheral view of the whole working landscape allows the team to forecast upcoming challenges.

Worked Plans

Plain and simple worked plans relate to execution. This applies to the ability and capacity to implement the plan with defined deliverables. From here emerge exemplary performers who harness all well thought out solutions, ideas, knowledge and human resources to form a formidably functioning work group. They are the can-do types and let's-get-to-work characters whose hallmark is rolling up their sleeves and digging in for the grunt work. Asian patriarchs have reputations of being stern and dispassionate focused primarily on their family members' respective responsibilities and contribution. This stereotype has been passed on to through the ages. To illustrate, a Filipino father had the responsibility of sending nine children to college. The rules were clear and unequivocal: each child had to finish their college degree with the agreed time of four years in order for the upcoming siblings to do the same. There was no room for delays much less time for exploring and discovering the call of the wild blue yonder; otherwise, one will be bumping up against the other and the cost would be unbearable for the family. Each child had a crystal clear task and was expected to deliver. It was agreed upon that whoever does not finish within the allotted time of four years would no longer be supported financially and were to be left on one's own. Quite amazingly, this outstanding worked plan produced two teachers, one accountant, one Ph.D., one librarian, and two physicians, an incredible accomplishment given the demands of time and resources.

It is evident that modern work group approaches and collectivist attributes that have been handed down through generations show similarities with one obvious difference: Asian family cohesiveness does not appear to be a programmable skill that can be taught independent of significant group participants as most corporate management techniques lend themselves to. This distinct difference is a cultural variation that helps us understand our cultural values, social systems and work values as well. It also provides significant linkages to the most contemporary achievements in management practices and enduring ideas.

© APMF and Henry Astorga 2001

Achievemate Learning Centre. Chief Course Developer-Facilitator.

Asia Pacific Management Forum (APMF E-Magazine). Columnist, East West Strategies. Kuala Lumpur.

University of Action Learning at Boulder. Fellow-Online Faculty.

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