We’ve gone from cows and plows to assembly lines to virtual teamwork. Today companies go outside brick and mortar corporate walls to recruit and retain the best talent and profitable partnerships. According to Trina Hoefling, President of GroupOne Solutions, if your company is outsourcing, telecommuting or dispersed geographically, you are a virtual organization. Many of you are working in a virtual organization without realizing it. Virtual employees, independent and project-specific contractors have become a fundamental part of the workforce. Managers no longer manage just employees they see; some they may never see and some they don’t even know. In this context, developing teamwork and collaboration means acquiring a set of competencies and skills that can motivate, coach, assess performance and integrate people with different values, beliefs and attitudes. Leaders must have a strong cultural IQ, credibility, and sensitivity.
The question I’m asked most often is: How do I lead a global or virtual team? Well, first let’s discuss what leaders often neglect when talking about leadership and that is culture, because understanding culture is one of the most critical skills needed to lead.
To manage a business organization it is essential to understand people’s values and assumptions, which is shaped by their culture. Edgar Schein a former MIT Sloan School of Management professor, defined culture as “A pattern of shared basic assumptions invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration that have worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems.” Culture is a cognitive framework which consists of attitudes, values, behavioral norms and expectations that are shared by organization members. It is a process of socially transmitted behavior patterns that serves to relate people to their environment. The visual display of culture within a company is demonstrated by office layout, reporting structure, dress code, metaphors, punishments and rewards. Every company has an organizational culture and subcultures that exists amongst groups. Simple, everyday activities, such as viewing objects, are influenced by cultural assumptions and frameworks. Are you beginning to see the type of conflict that can occur when managing a team without understanding cultural proclivities?
Let’s dive deeper:
The amount of background and contextual information that explain a given situation or condition is referred to as cultural complexity. What does this mean for leaders? Let’s say some of your team members are from a low-context culture such as the United States or Germany, in low-context cultures, communication is explicit and direct but the other members of your team are from a high-context culture such as Latin America, China or the Middle East, where communication is implicit and transmitted by physical context or internalized in people. People in low-context cultures want yes or no answers and feel uncomfortable in situations where they have to decipher meaning. This sounds somewhat like communication in a marriage right? See why there is a 50% divorce rate. Low and high-context cultures have two vastly different ways of communicating. However, even within low-context cultures like the United States and Germany many cultural differences exist.
Emails can be misunderstood
Something as mundane and routine as sending email can become problematic when culture is not understood. When Americans send emails they expect the recipient to respond immediately or at least within 24 hours. In some cultures, considerable thought goes into email responses, in others, the cultural perception of time is different; therefore, the email you sent may not be answered for several days. Would a slow response mean the person is inconsiderate, lazy, ignoring you or not a team player? You might just think so without understanding cultural differences. While you’re thinking they’re lazy, they’re thinking you’re domineering, aggressive and pushy.
Lazy workers and incompetent bosses
Author Kamal Fatehi, stated managerial concepts such as motivation, superior-subordinate relationships, authority, leadership and control are rooted in cultural values and norms. When cultures integrate within the work environment, taking words at their face value, ignoring unspoken signals and lacking background information embedded in cultural traditions can often result in gross misunderstandings, lackluster productivity and unfulfilled objectives.
For example, take an American supervisor and a Greek employee. America is an individualistic culture and managers expect employee participation and self direction. A Greek employee for example comes from a culture where supervisors exercise managerial authority and are direct in telling employees what to do. How this plays out in the day-to-day work environment is the American supervisor is thinking the Greek worker isn’t participating and giving him the answers he wants and the Greek worker is thinking the American supervisor is incompetent because in his mind, the supervisor should be telling him what to do.
Leaders observe and discuss differences
Leaders take note to observe and discuss cultural differences within your team. You can use a survey tool and/or personality test to help you get started. I highly suggest that you read Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory. The main goal is for you to get an understanding of the cultural makeup of your team so you know how to leverage differences and circumvent conflict. Similarities often swamp differences until conflict occurs and differences surface. Conflict in any team environment is a given so be prepared. In the survey ask team members what it means to be on time? Does it mean you can show up 10 or 15 minutes late? Cultures also view risk and uncertainty differently? Cultures with a strong aversion to risk and uncertainty avoid situations that are ambiguous and risky; cultures with a low aversion to risk can tolerate risk and uncertainty more comfortably. This means some of your team members may become aloof, angry, non participatory and frustrated when goals or direction change midstream, while others find it a natural process.
Discuss norms and expectations upfront
Have a kick-off meeting to discuss norms and expectations, what you want to achieve, the team’s purpose, how the team is going to work together, how often the team should meet and how to use what technology, how often. The goal is to establish cultural integration and trust not stamp out creative difference. Learn what those differences are so that you can leverage them in the best possible way. The good thing about leadership skills is they’re learnable. With patience and due diligence upfront, you can lead any team successfully. The following websites provide free survey tools: www.surveymonkey.com and www.surveybuilder.com. I am not affiliated with any survey website, so the choice is yours. Good luck.
If you’re in need of a career coach or leadership consultant or just have a question you need answered, please feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I promise to respond within 24 hours, after all, I’m American.