Multi-Cultural and Virtual Teams Require Careful Leadership

By Gary Clayton

Multi-Cultural is the new norm.  What challenges does this create for your virtual teams?

Multi-Cultural is the new norm. What leadership challenges does this create for your virtual teams?

Communicating with multi-cultural teams has special challenges that can make or break your leadership. Often, you can “muddle through” these challenges with a face-to-face team, but with virtual teams it is easy to be oblivious to issues until your team is in revolt and your project is doomed. These situations can arise even within the borders of a single country, especially one like the United States, where many cultures come together into a single “salad bowl”. What special measures do you take in leading these teams?

Plan for regional cultural differences

Starting with your team messaging and continuing through your planning, you must make allowances for regional culture differences to be a successful leader. It is always wrong to assume that your team is made up of people whose values are totally in sync with yours.

I’ve seen projects that had to adjust schedules (including those of executives and consultants flying in for meetings) because team members seriously threatened to quit rather than meet on a particular day. Why? Because the day in question was the first day of deer-hunting season or bass- or trout-fishing season. I’ve seen more than half of a plant workforce disappear on those days. Local management routinely built that factor into their production planning; there were no problems until Headquarters stuck their noses into the situation.

Also within the US, I’ve seen different regional messaging needed to get a project completed on schedule. The region I worked in contained 8 offices and I was long accustomed to our consultants completing their assignments on time and within the estimated level of effort over 90% of the time. It was a surprise to me when I worked with the consultants of another region and discovered that they assumed that they could slow down and consume twice the estimated number of man-days to complete every assignment.

I also had a manager from their region who cut all estimates in half before giving them to consultants from my region to “keep them honest”. The first three consultants he approached with the halved estimates marched into my cubicle and announced they were resigning. He had to apologize and change his messaging immediately so we all could continue working together.

Assume nothing with international and virtual teams: verify instead

Every year, our world continues to shrink through faster and more elaborate communications. Continuing efforts to lower international trade barriers are encouraging many businesses to explore international expansion in trade and production.

More and more, we are part of international teams that never or rarely meet in person. Our most important communications are conducted through phone and email, where we can’t see each other.
Written communications are invitations to misunderstandings

With email in particular, we can’t see the facial expressions on our team members and we can’t hear the inflections in their voices. We are much less likely to know when they are upset or have doubts. After all, who is going to challenge a boss by writing an email? Probably only the French, some of the North Americans, and a few of the Brits in my experience. I may be exaggerating the truth, but many people from the other cultures I have worked with will wait in hope that you as leader will come to your senses before failure has become the only possibility.

Ask for feedback, encourage and publicly reward those who respond to your request. Also provide safe alternative channels for your team to communicate upward to you – and arrange for those who respond to be rewarded, regardless of whether you like their response.

Test your leadership messages before distributing

Test your leadership messages on selected team members from various cultures and pay attention to their feedback before committing to wide distribution. Don’t set yourself up for easy misinterpretation. If you are American, believe that what is unambiguous to you can – and will be – interpreted differently by other cultures within your team.

English is a very low-context language - and the United States as a culture is extremely low context, probably as a result of the blending of so people from so many cultures and languages into one. There is a high school near me with around 2500 students in grades 10-12. A few years ago, a survey showed the students speak over 80 different languages and dialects. The common language is, of course, English. As some body-language and symbolism is culture-specific, clarity of spoken or written English word is critical to successful communication. I believe this is why we have more lawyers per 1000 residents than any other country. Follow Barack Obama’s lead by scripting most of your messages – and stay on message as the leader.

Don’t assume your values and your team’s are identical

Our American focus on individualism rather than communitarianism leads many of our employees and managers to easily misinterpret what they hear and read from their virtual team members around the globe. It takes considerable experience for most Americans to understand that a response of “yes” from various people around the world may mean “Yes, I understand what you are saying but I disagree”, “Yes, I agree with you but my culture/community prohibits me from doing what you ask”, or “Yes, I understand your request, I agree with your request and will do what you have requested.”

Intercultural teams are a fact of life in the 21st century. Make them work for your success by accepting the special challenges associated with them and creating special procedures by which you can learn of their reactions to your leadership messages.

Gary Clayton has over 20 years experience organizing and directing multi-cultural and virtual teams to support projects at some of the world’s largest companies. Gary provides leadership coaching and consulting services to leaders and those who wish to become leaders in business and life.

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