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Tips for Successfully Leading a Virtual Cross-Cultural Team

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 52 seconds

 

By Teresa Douglas, an American professional living in Canada. She is the co-author of Working Remotely: Secrets to Success for Employees on Distributed Teams.

We're grateful to Teresa for sharing her expertise. Any opinions expressed within this blog post are those of the author and not necessarily held by Workplaceless itself.


 

I walked out of the meeting with housing services feeling like I wasted my time. This was the second group session I attended as the finance chair for our local neighborhood association. After (what seemed like) a highly productive pre-meeting email discussion, I had expected to leave with a decision and a course of action. 

Instead, we spent the hour covering the same points discussed in our email chain. The only decision we made was to schedule another meeting to discuss this “very important issue.”

I’ve spent more than ten years as a people and operations manager. A good chunk of that time has been spent in meetings. I can size up a room and figure out if things are going well, and my experience was telling me that these folks had no intention of working in good faith.

Unfortunately, I was missing a critical piece of information. I am a seasoned American professional. Had this meeting taken place in the States, my assessment of the situation would likely have been correct. But I wasn’t in America any more. 

I was in Canada, and I was wrong. 

 

Cultural Cues to the Rescue

In times past, it was the Microsofts and Coca-Colas of the world that navigated cross-cultural teams. If you wanted global management experience, you had to move to a different country to get it. Before you left for your new assignment, your company might have required you to take cultural sensitivity training so you wouldn’t offend your colleagues on the first day. 

Most importantly, you would be immersed in the culture of your host country. My experience proves that it’s possible to live in a foreign land and still misread a situation. However, there are a multitude of opportunities to learn from one’s mistakes. 

Just as someone who buys a Honda suddenly sees all of the other Honda’s on the road, I started noticing, after that meeting, how many words Canadians used before making decisions. Everyone from my physician to the call center agent at Canada Revenue Services went into exhaustive detail (by American standards) about nearly everything. 

The people at housing services hadn’t been giving me the runaround. They were taking the appropriate amount of time to build consensus based on Canadian cultural norms. That realization changed my entire outlook about how to get things done in Canada.

 

Remote Work Lowers the Barrier to Entry—and to Misunderstanding

Thanks to advances in cloud computing and video conferencing, you don’t need to move to a new country to work on a multinational team. You can log onto your computer in London, instant message your co-founder in Spain, and hold a video meeting with your employees based in India, China, and France. Working remotely means living where you want to live. It means working with some of the best minds in the industry, regardless of location.

But remote work also allows one to work globally without exiting one’s cultural bubble. Consider what would have happened if I lived in the United States and went to a video meeting with the housing services team in Canada. I would have left the meeting just as frustrated, but nothing in my environment would have suggested that there was another side to that story. I would have gone to meeting number three convinced I was locked in committee purgatory with untrustworthy people.

The situation could have spiralled out of control, each side convinced that the other were bad actors.

 

We All Swim in Different Cultural Waters

Erin Meyers, in her book The Culture Map, says, “The sad truth is that the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work . . . when you exchange emails with an international counterpart in a country you haven’t spent time in, it is much easier to miss the cultural subtleties impacting the communication.”

In a speech addressed to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005, David Foster Wallace used a parable that is particularly apt in this situation: 

 

An old fish swims past two young fish and says “Morning boys! How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

 

We all swim in different cultural waters. Recognizing this is a critical first step toward successfully managing across country lines. Everything from the way we structure our meetings to how we manage conflict grows out of our environment. You don’t have to study every possible cultural permutation before managing a multinational team. You do have to be curious and open to discovery, or you will be like the young fish above, totally oblivious to your environment.

Successful cross-cultural managers approach multinational teams with an anthropological mindset. They read books like Erin Meyer’s The Culture Map to get ahead of potential points of conflict. They understand, though, that these books are starting points. “The purpose of books like The Culture Map,” says Theresa Sigillito Hollema, a Cultural Consultant who focuses on global virtual teams, “is to open us up to differences. They are guides. We then have to ask, ‘what does this mean for my real colleague,’ and not a ‘typical’ Chinese, French, or Russian person.” 

 

Make the Implicit Explicit

Seasoned remote workers know that the remote medium provides fewer incidental cues than a physical office environment. Whether we are participating in a video call or an email exchange, our interactions are intentional. We also have to be intentional about the way we address cultural differences.

“Bring culture as a topic of discussion into the team,” advises Ms. Hollema. “How are we going to work together? This is where culture really expresses itself. If we don’t bring that out early into the team conversation, and explore those differences, it may rise as a process conflict later.”

Many of the techniques that you use to develop a cohesive remote team will also help you to identify cultural differences and ways of working. The road to smooth working relationships—whether your team is multinational or purely domestic—is paved through personal touch points. Hold more video meetings at the beginning of a team’s creation—both as a team and one-on-one. And make time for non-business topics. “The personal conversations give the space to learn about each other’s culture and how each person views the world,” says Ms. Hollema. 

Educate your team by engaging them in the process. Ask culture-specific questions on your team calls. Consider these questions as jumping off points: 

  • If you’re in a meeting, do you wait for the leader to call on you, or is it expected that you’ll jump in? 
  • When delivering tough feedback, do you state what’s wrong directly, or do you sandwich the problem between two compliments? 
  • If you set a deadline, do you expect: (a) to receive the finished project before the due date, (b) to receive the project on the due date, or (c) to receive the project within a week of the due date?

Team members will hear how the answers to these questions may differ depending on country, which can help them develop their own cultural competency.  Once these differences are made explicit, the group can work together to craft team norms that everyone can live with. 

The process might feel uncomfortable. There will be bumps along the way. You will likely have incidents like mine, where someone on the team leaves a meeting frustrated. But if you approach each interaction as a chance to learn and grow, you will overcome the inevitable obstacles. I certainly did. After my moment of learning, I built a collegial working relationship with the Canadian housing service team, culminating in a series of neighborhood projects that we could both be proud of. 

Working across cultures requires a thoughtful approach. But if you put in the effort, you will develop a truly cohesive team that produces quality work in a location-independent environment.

 

 @workplaceless

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