Archives For intercultural teams

Poor management, communications breakdowns, unsuitable or badly integrated team members, ill-equipped staff, personality clashes — there are many reasons why virtual teams fail. Not surprisingly, despite years of research on how to do virtual teams better (not to mention the development of great technological tools), virtual teams still fail at an alarming rate – varied research results suggest that failure rates for virtual teams may be as high as 70%.

While virtual teams create the opportunity to bring together the best and most appropriate individuals based on their expertise and skills, it is often the inability of these individuals to work together towards a common goal (in a virtual context) that results in failure. In order to perform well, virtual teams have to work harder and use distinct methodologies, processes and behaviors to build communication, trust and a sense of team cohesiveness. But what happens when they don’t? Usually… epic failure!

From my experience, here are a few of the key reasons virtual teams continue to fail in a bit more detail:

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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 culturally 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.

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People in companies around the world think, act, work, learn and lead differently, based for the most part on their culture. Culture both consciously and unconsciously shapes values, perceptions and behaviors, as well as setting systematic guidelines for how we should conduct business.

Last week we took a look at how we can combine different components of culture to move virtual teams forward. This week we will explore how you can effectively manage cultural differences from a practical viewpoint that will allow everyone to benefit from cultural diversity.

By its very nature, the make-up of virtual teams is diverse. This is good – it allows you to maximize different perspectives and, hopefully, leverage the differences to gain new insights and fresh perspectives. However, there are factors that need to be managed if a virtual team is to not only survive, but thrive, within the complexities of a virtual team environment. Here are some common challenges you may have as a leader in creating synergy within your virtual team:

  • Leveraging the differences in cultural norms of team members
  • Understanding how different people manifest their cultural norms
  • Influencing the different functional, professional and alternative subcultures
  • Being empathetic to the functional and geographic dispersion of team members
  • Managing the the perception of status differences within the team
  • Leveraging culturally different leadership styles
  • Controlling differing expectations regarding key processes and procedures

These challenges need to be managed throughout the lifecycle of the team. The sooner they are acknowledged and worked on, the more efficiently the team will be able to deliver results.

Despite these challenges, there are also unifying factors that can connect a virtual team with their diverse team members. Virtual integration can occur based on common agreement as to accepted principles and processes and mechanisms such as shared vision and values.

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Did you know that an estimated 70% of international ventures fail due to poor cross-cultural interactions?  When individuals from different cultural backgrounds or environments don’t understand each other, it will inevitably lead to failed projects and suboptimal results.  Culture forms the way we think and act – across all spectrums – often causing members of virtual teams to perceive reality very differently across boundaries and borders.

Although cultural diversity has high potential for negative outcomes, it also has enormous potential for growth and renewal that will facilitate extraordinary results. Always keep in the forefront of your mind that your virtual teams likely have more talent and potential than other types of teams by the sheer force of their diversity – the question is, will they be able to leverage that diversity for individual, team and corporate success?

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Today, in many organizations, a significant amount of work is done virtually. Even in the most provincial and domestic firms, it is rare to find all team members in a single location. Companies frequently choose people from across various global locations to work virtually in an effort to save both time and money.

The business justification for you to create virtual teams is strong: they leverage expertise and vertical integration across the organization to make resources readily available, as well as increase the overall speed and agility of the organization. In addition, virtual teams draw talent quickly from various functions, locations and cultures. They reduce the disruption to people’s lives because travel becomes less of a necessity and team members can both broaden and deepen their perspectives (and their careers) by working across boundaries and borders on a variety of projects and tasks.

As a leader of virtual teams, your main goal should be to leverage your human capital to its utmost – as quickly as possible.  Beware: How you choose to manage this process may be the difference between success and failure.

Despite the potential advantages of creating virtual teams, a dispersed environment will fundamentally change how your teams operate and adds to the overall complexity of the environment. Virtual teams are more complex than traditional teams for two key reasons:

  1. They cross boundaries related to time, distance (geography), culture and/or function
  2. They communicate and collaborate using technology

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Both the ancient Romans and Greeks called all foreigners “Barbarians”. The North Africans call their mountain people “Berbers”, Arabic for Barbar. The Europeans, until the late 19th century, called everything in North Africa “Barbaria”. The word “barbarian” refers to the uncultured, or those with unrefined communication skills – both explicit and implicit. The way we express ourselves is predetermined by our differing cultures (even if we often do speak the same language). How we communicate ultimately determines how we are viewed as global leaders. Damaging miscommunications can (and do) happen frequently when working across cultures, but they can be avoided if we apply some cultural intelligence to our diverse interactions – in particular, understanding the differences between high and low context communications and leveraging both for personal and organizational gain.

High Context cultures communicate meaning not only with words, but with voice, tone, body language, facial expressions, eye contact, speech patterns, and the use of silence. Words play a relatively small part in the overall meaning of the communication, and the context conveys the bulk of the information. People in high-context cultures, such as Asia and South America, tend to take time getting to know one another, providing for an understanding of the broader context of a conversation. This results in knowledge of what to expect, what signals to look for, and how to interpret subtle signs or expressions – fewer words need to be said.

Low Context cultures are expecting explicit communications. People want detailed background information before making a decision, however they are generally unaware of subtle nonverbal signals going on around them. Documents and contracts are not taken seriously unless written or signed – details must be provided. For example, in the United States and Germany (both low-context cultures), contracts with numerous explicit clauses are a normal way to conduct business and the written word is taken quite literally. In low-context cultures, expect detailed documentation – thorough job descriptions, detailed accounting, and lengthy business planning documents. The devil is in the detail.

When communications become challenging, it can be tempting to access your “barbarian-reflex”, especially when messaging becomes unclear. But, as you can imagine, it is completely ineffective to view your colleagues, staff, or even clients as “foreign” or “unrefined” simply because they do not communicate as you do. If you are motivated to communicate effectively on a global, multi-cultural level, you will need to invest in building trust – the more you come to know someone, the less you tend to look upon him or her as a “barbarian”.

If your purpose is to ensure your colleagues and staff reliably implement to your specifications across the globe, the strategy you choose will vary depending on the cultural orientations you are working across. In those high-context cultures, your strategy will need to be relationship and trust based and may not be explicit – more soft-skills based and time intensive.  In low-context cultures the purpose of communication is to transfer information and your strategy will need to be explicit, efficient, and detailed in order to ensure the correct implementation. A sound strategic approach that is rooted in cultural orientation will be imperative to your overall success in the global organization.

As a global leader, everything you do conveys a message. Leveraging high-context and low-context cultures means relying on both implicit and explicit communication – carefully ensuring that what you say (low-context) is always mirrored by what you do (high-context). When there is alignment, you automatically build trust across all cultures  and your strategic approach becomes less diverse by nature – your message becomes stronger, and you can more readily achieve your global organizational goals, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Please feel free to contact me at Sheri.Mackey@LuminosityGlobal.com or by visiting our website atwww.LuminosityGlobal.com. Be sure and check in next Thursday as we begin a series on Leadership Lessons From Around The World!