Deep cultural differences are key in Ryder Cup success

Alyssa Bantle on why global managers and trainers can answer golf’s big question: why does Europe have a better team spirit than the US?

Europe’s Rory McIlroy tees off during practice ahead of the 41st Ryder Cup at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Chaska, Minnesota, USA. Photo credit: PA images

Golf’s Ryder Cup, taking place in Minnesota between the US and Europe, is throwing up an interesting debate around teamwork and cultural difference – one which global team managers and trainers are well placed to answer.

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People are asking why Europe, a team which is a real mix of players from different countries and different cultures, seems to regularly have a better ‘team spirit’ than their American rivals.

You only have to look at the recent Brexit debate to know that not everyone in Europe thinks or behaves the same way. And yet, as a group, the Europeans seem closer and more in tune with each other, leading to eight wins in the last 10 tournaments.

The debate has become so intense that US captain Davis Love III and US team managers have spoken about what they are doing to try and close the gap.

But how can it be explained?

To discover the answers we need to look far deeper into the cultural differences between America and Europe and understand the cultural drivers that shape behaviour on both sides of the Atlantic. Just like corporations do when building global teams.

Let’s start by asking the most basic of questions: What does the word ‘team’ mean to you?

We often use this question when training people in how to manage a global team in big business and it’s amazing the different answers that come back.

You would have thought that such a regularly used word would mean the same to everyone; but it doesn’t. And this is at the core of the Ryder Cup debate.

Americans see a team as a group of individuals working together, leveraging each other’s strengths, to achieve a goal. The word team makes them think of a well-oiled operation, good organisation and shared tasks.

For Europeans the response to the word ‘team’ is far more emotional. For them it’s often about a sense of community and camaraderie – and how that energises the team to succeed.

This might go some way to explaining why the Europeans often appear to have a better team spirit and perhaps why they have been so successful.

This year, the Americans have been talking up how much they are working on teamwork, which is interesting, but listen carefully and the language used is still totally different to Europe. It’s still task-focused rather than relationship focused. It’s about having the right organisation and backroom staff in place rather than about relationships between people.

These differences are also reflected in business and there is a lot sport can learn from the way global businesses put teams together.

Some cultural behaviour can have deep roots and for the US and Europe we can trace the differences back a long way.

• In the history of the US it’s always been about being self-reliant – from the first pioneers to today’s entrepreneurs.

• In Europe they have been used to alliances for centuries, finding ways to work together – through necessity – to leverage the strength of neighbours

• Americans are taught as young children to be competitive, being told it ‘brings out the best in you’.  This creates a different value set from the European one when it comes to teamwork.

• Even in team sports, training for children in the US has a strong focus on individual skills, teaching a player to bring their abilities to the team to ensure their team wins.

All this doesn’t mean US players aren’t capable of team spirit – passion for your country and rallying behind a joint cause is very powerful. But in an individual sport like golf the reliance on self is deep – and when allied to the US culture of being the best you can, you can see why teamwork means something different. There’s no doubt in my mind, for instance, that individuals within the US team will still feel a sense of being competitive with their teammates; it’s in-built.

For Americans on the golf course, and in business too, it’s all about internal control. That keeps the focus on self – and makes teamwork different.

For the Europeans, their shared values are far more around the group, harmony, working together as one – and that has shone through in the Ryder Cup. While the US focuses entirely on ‘the task’, which is winning the trophy, Europe puts emphasis on the feeling of doing it together as a team, which is emotionally powerful.

We see this when training corporate groups. In America, relationships are something that happen outside of work. It doesn’t mean they don’t have friendships at work but they certainly don’t need to feel close to those in the office. In Europe the practice of meeting work colleagues ‘in the pub’ or as part of a social scene is far more prevalent. These differences are the heart of the Ryder Cup conundrum.

No doubt it will be a fascinating, tense and closely-fought battle in Minnesota – and may the best team win.

But the big question is what does the word ‘team’ really mean, at work or on the sporting field. It’s a lot more complicated than it appears…


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