Most organizations today operate in a global environment. Goods and services are sourced and sold across international markets. As such, virtual teams’ are an enormous asset in almost any organizational setting. Leveraging diverse virtual teams across global markets has the capacity to determine unique multi-market strategies, undertake planning from diverse perspectives, carry out research in different markets, and perform other complex tasks that have the capacity to drive competitive advantage for global organizations.
Despite this fact, diverse virtual teams’ are an unexploited asset in most organizations. Even though the opportunities are enormous, most leaders also recognize that the challenges are significant as well. Teams with members from diverse cultural and functional backgrounds inevitably differ in their assumptions about decision-making and even in their preconceptions of teamwork – traditional models of multicultural collaboration often fail to leverage individual team members’ skills and experiences in productive ways.
There is a fundamental balance that you, as a leader, need to recognize and encourage in your virtual teams if you are serious about succeeding in today’s global marketplace: coexistence of differences and meaningful participation. The idea that differences can coexist productively, while facilitating meaningful contributions is not intuitive, because it’s complex.
This inherent complexity often causes leaders to opt for decreased productivity, rather than leveraging the immense potential that lies just beneath the surface of the virtual team. The potential resides in something that your multicultural virtual teams have that traditional teams do not:
Differing cultural perspectives have the capacity to lead to more creative decisions and solutions – if your teams are educated to productively coexist, relationships are nurtured and perspectives are leveraged.
Despite the fact that there is vast potential that can be generated within virtual teams, there are also pitfalls. As you think about the challenges that different mental models can generate, you need to consider how you will enable your multicultural teams to maximize their inherent potential. There are positives and negatives to each personality type on the team, but two specific aspects of personality (which are culturally aligned), can have a caustic effect on your GVTs ability to contribute everything it has to offer.
Most multicultural teams collaborate in one of two ways:
1) A coalition of dominant team members (often culturally driven) direct the team’s decision-making, leaving little room for input or perspective from the remainder of the group
2) Team members will intentionally sacrifice the identity of their own cultural norms to what they perceive are the dominant forces on the team.
These two drastically different approaches to collaboration can be very positive, but this is a double-edged sword…
A dominating component of the group has the distinct possibility of robbing power from other members, significantly decreasing the opportunity to generate the creative, diverse ideas that create competitive advantage. While taking charge and getting things done is a positive attribute, the controlling component of your virtual team dominates the environment, overrides differences of opinion, and suppresses other perspectives. This automatically creates a less culturally integrated team because it discourages meaningful participation and negates the contributions of diverse perspectives.
Alternatively, the concept of sacrificial integration requires team members (again from a cultural perspective) to sublimate the identity of their own cultural groups to that of the team. They do this by imposing “superordinate goals” on themselves based on their perceptions of the common interests of team members. While having the desire to integrate with the team is also a positive quality, this mentality carries two specific risks that are likely to reduce team productivity:
1) Members yield a great deal of their cultural identity—and hence their tendency to think differently—in the interests of unity. This immediately diminishes the teams’ capacity to incorporate valuable cultural information across specific markets, as well as limits the creative thought and differing perspectives that will drive new and innovative product and service development.
2) In order to maintain inclusivity, these team members are likely to function at the level of the team’s least productive members. Some of your brightest minds (with the best ideas) may be from more inclusive cultures, yet they are less likely to acknowledge or voice their innovative thoughts because they perceive it is not the will of the team. As a result, less creative thought dominates and the team is working below its potential. This lowest common denominator philosophy can dilute contributions from the most productive members.
As a leader of virtual teams, you can contribute to moving toward a different, more effective approach by ensuring the balanced, meaningful participation of all members in the following ways:
- Set clear expectations up front that diverse opinions and perspectives are expected and that everyone is required to contribute their expertise at all times.
- Ensure a clear understanding amongst the team of each member’s area of expertise and role on the team.
- Demonstrate that diversity is valued by facilitating extensive questioning amongst team members to balance the power equation.
- Be aware of team dynamics and ensure you are obtaining contributions from each individual team member.
- Appoint individuals or subgroups to work on a particular problem independently and then share their solutions with the entire team – encourage inclusive discussion of the ideas presented.
- When disagreements occur, as they inevitably will, members take a vote – and everyone must vote their conscience in order to preserve the balance and ensure the best decisions are made across the spectrum.
Virtual teams have the capacity to become an unimaginable asset in every organization. The coexistence of differences and meaningful participation is a critical component to success in virtual environments. The idea that differences can coexist productively, facilitating meaningful contributions is a concept that will create a coalition of collaboration on your virtual teams.
How are you strategically creating a coalition of collaboration on your virtual teams?
Please engage the discussion and let us know how you create coalitions of collaboration on your virtual teams. Always feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check back next week, for the next installment of Leadership Across Boundaries & Borders.