All cultures use teams; however, the way work is carried out and the perception of the concept differs quite widely depending on the culture. Our aim is to help your organization improve communication and trust, hone project management skills, and handle conflict and culture differences in the workplace.
Although global teams are highly complex, they are teams first and foremost. Everything that applies to teams will also apply to global teams – they are just more extreme. Global teams are by definition diverse and virtual.
The diversity of global teams can be created by members from different nations, functions, business units and organizations. The impact of diversity can lead to a high level of performance if managed well, but will hinder the team in creating value and results if not.
Diversity based on functionality, business unit and organization is dealt with by considering standard group dynamics. The differences in national culture usually affect dynamics at a deeper level and must be dealt with differently.
The difficulties in getting teams to work together effectively without delays and loss of creativity mean we have to reduce friction when it comes to building cross-cultural teams. It’s our role to help project team members cope with stresses caused by time pressures, ambiguous power and authority relationships and cross-cultural and interpersonal interactions.
Any relationship is founded on communication – verbal or nonverbal. When collaborating in teams, whether co-located or at a distance, the more efficient we communicate, the more likely it is that we create value and results. Information is often made less accessible due to cultural differences – and with the added factor of physical distance, communication can become even more strained.
It is therefore not surprising that we tend to turn to colleagues who are closest to us, culturally or physically, paying less attention to the competence of our global team as a whole.
Verbal communication patterns, such as turn-taking and deciding who speaks to whom and when, are highly dependent on culture. In many Latin countries, it is acceptable to express one’s ideas at any time, speaking at the same time as others and with openly expressed emotions. In other cultures, for example many East Asian countries, it is only acceptable to speak when asked a question, and never at the same time as others – silence is preferable. In Slovakian, Arabian and Chinese cultures (High Power Distance) team members are reluctant to take their turn and share important information in the presence of colleagues in a higher position, such as the team leader. Such employees may fear overstepping boundaries or feeling embarrassed.
Needless to say, communication in global teams is complicated due to cultural differences – and even more so in a virtual world where the number of social cues and signals are drastically reduced.
When working virtually, it’s evident that the greater distance of time and space can highlight dysfunctional teams, and as a result, lead to a risk of failure. Teams that are co-located can more easily recognize and remedy problems, especially those that may emerge within working relationships.
We all have different needs when it comes to trust and the way in which trust is built up. This becomes particularly evident when working with colleagues from different cultures: trust is highly dependent on cultural background.
The meaning of trust is not universal: Vertrauen in German has different associations compared to fiducia in Italian which, in turn, is conceptually different from trust for Anglo-Saxons. This emphasizes the differences in behavior when it comes to the concept of trust.
Trust is the single most critical factor in global teams – if we are to commit ourselves to a collaboration, we have to trust the others involved.
The challenge for global teams is that distance and unfamiliarity, for example cultural differences and unknown context, can have a strong impact on trust. Members of global teams need to learn how to communicate and work over different time zones and they need to understand how culture influences the work process.
Participants in global projects need learn to trust expert advice and feel confident in decisions made by colleagues with a different cultural background working in a different context. This is essential in creating a sense of trust that all team members are pulling their weight and committed to a shared goal.
Ways we can help you:
We all perceive and handle conflicts differently depending on our cultural background and experience.
Constructive conflicts are usual when it come it comes to team work, and as long as we can refrain from making it personal, it will remain so. However, due to the different ways we interact and expectations around social etiquette, unwanted personal conflicts among global team members can develop.
Creativity and innovation is core to creating value and results; however, this is dependent on the ability to handle conflict constructively – the ability to keep the conflict purely about the work task.
Ways we can help you:
Our experience and research reveals that the main source for achieving the skills described above are acquired while working as a global team - doing your everyday tasks.
We coach teams to achieve their goals and create results. We do this by choosing your preferred and shared ways of working, agreeing on standard practices which will allow your team, over time, to adapt to shared patterns and develop routines for processing information, coordinating work and handling rules and norms.
Ways we can help you:
Ambiguous and non-routine situations and problems, such as those dealing with cultural misunderstandings and conflict, require more social presence. To create a social presence for global teams a daily virtual presence is absolutely crucial for remote members – in the form of a virtual workspace.
A virtual workspace creates space for a social system with rules about “How things are done around here”, for example, the processes, relationships and identities. Identification and a sense of belonging increases interpersonal trust and cooperation, group cohesion and the internalization of norms and practices.
Colleagues who work under the same roof will naturally come into contact with one another at various times throughout the day. The virtual workspace will provide a setting where such incidental meetings with remote members may also take place.
Effectively, the virtual workspace can be a website accessed via an intranet which displays the project’s mission, photographs, names of team members, and extensive profiles that include: accomplishments, areas of expertise and interests. It can also include the use of Instant Messaging (IM) and texting to create the sense of closeness and of being present.
The team’s goals, tasks involved in meeting these goals, an indication of how close each task is to completion and expectations and deliverables, are all important aspects of the virtual workspace. The virtual workspace will provide team members with a tool to keep in touch and support each other.
Ways we can help you:
Regular, predictable communication provides a rhythm for global teams and imposes structure and stability into a seemingly chaotic environment. It will also reduce the sense of uncertainty and help build and maintain trust. The rhythm we find natural will depend on our cultural background and the context.
By scheduling regular face-to-face meetings, you will create a relaxed structure for virtual interaction. For example, scheduled face-to-face meetings every three months arranged up to a year in advance and virtual meetings with regular intervals in between.
Ways we can help you:
Our preferences for collaborative technology differ depending on our cultural backgrounds.
In our experience, members from countries such as China, Korea, Brazil (collectivistic cultures) are more likely to prefer video conferencing and face-to-face group meetings, whereas team members from the USA, the Netherlands, Denmark (individualistic cultures) may prefer one-to-one communication via email and voicemail, which might be considered cold and impersonal by those with a more collectivistic orientation.
Emails are often the collaborative technology of choice, because it is a means that we can convey messages rapidly across distance and time. Yet email is limited in its ability to convey complex or emotional messages alongside general problem solving, therefore it requires great skill to use email to foster trust or to repair trust once it has been damaged.
Our ability to swing by a colleague’s office and ask “How’s everything going?” might not seem particularly important, but it can have a very positive effect on our relationship in the team and our ability as a team to complete tasks on time. When that is not an option, we can use of IM or texting to share those “Eureka!” and “Oh, no!” moments, as well as encouraging an email or a short “Thank you” memo.
Ways we can help you:
Projects make up the majority of the work in most organizations, and often by global virtual teams, which increase flexibility and adaptability. Organizations often include Project Management Offices and strategies are implemented through carefully selected project portfolios. Your role as project manager is becoming increasingly central and complex.
To be effective as a global project manager you need to be ‘global-minded’ – capable of handling a high degree of complexity and strong orientation towards the global scene. To successfully manage global projects, you have to have a thorough understanding of project management tools and processes, and how these are influenced by culture. You have to be globally competent.
The most natural reaction for you as global project manager is to seek specific information about the cultural background of the team members. This is necessary, but not sufficient. Learning about specific cultures serves us well, but mainly if we work in a monocultural context. Learning about general cultural difference serves us better, when we work in a multicultural context. It makes it possible to compare and bridge differences and similarities. With a general understanding of culture differences you can compare team members’ attitudes, communication styles, conflict strategies, negotiation patterns and decision styles, and facilitate the work processes no matter what cultures are involved.
Having cultural knowledge, specific or general, will however be of little help to you, if you are not capable of transforming this knowledge into action and results. To effectively transform cultural knowledge into results, we must be globally competent – this means being able to manage our perception of others, our relationship with others and our sense of self.
A good project manager will need to understand and apply the fundamental components of project management successfully. As a global project manager, you will need to have an open mind to different perceptions of the project as a whole, in other words, scope, accountability and leadership, all of which are often influenced by culture.
Projects in a Western context (low context cultures) tend to have a very clear and briefly stated scope with well-defined deliverables. However, colleagues in places like Japan and China (high context cultures) still tend to assume, that parts of the scope have to be “read between the lines”.
Global projects require heavyweight project management with dense communication channels, including continuous and highly visible support from senior management. Global projects also need explicit rules for everything; you cannot assume people know what is expected of them. If not told otherwise, team members will naturally do things as they would in their home organization, for example by using an entirely different tool set, different work processes and expecting a particular leadership style.
Specific tasks are usually clearly related to roles in places like the USA and the Netherlands (individualistic cultures) to ensure individual accountability.
In South Korea and Colombia (collectivistic cultures) roles are more fluid and members contribute as they can and the group is held accountable as a whole.
Roles and expectations differ depending on the culture. Being explicit in defining expectation combined with dense communication is therefore extremely important.
Project-based organizations tend to have a looser hierarchical structure, which can be a challenge in more hierarchical cultures, for example China, India and Russia, where it is generally assumed that there has to be one leader.
However, a loose structure works well in countries such as Scandinavia, USA and Austria, where team members share the leadership.
To be effective interculturally, the global project manager must be able to adapt leadership style, processes and practices to cultural differences. He/she must be globally competent.
One of the primary challenges for the global project manager is a clear understanding of the various interest groups, the nature of their project-related claims, and the strategies through which stakeholders advance their interests and affect project realization.
Different cultures have various levels of risk acceptance and different perceptions on the level of detail required for planning, which highly influence how we achieve buy-in, and how and when we involve the project stakeholders in the decision-making process.
Global projects require a strong project management team to drive the project and strong team leaders supported by robust tools and processes. These are necessary to impose discipline, structure and a shared sense of purpose across different locations.
Each site involved in global projects will see the project through the prism of its own contribution and context, rather than putting the bigger picture first. This is why global projects need a clear center of control, where one site is assigned the role as the project leader.
The ability to work in global projects will only develop through repeated exposure to dispersed collaboration. All experience and research shows that the main source for achieving the required skills of a global project manager are acquired while doing the job.
© 2014 Global Teams All rights reserved