From phone interviews with members of a global virtual team (I’ll call them the Z-team) I knew that most of the work to be done with them was related to recognising and managing the impact of cultural differences. They were all smart people and they knew the fundamentals of good teamwork, but they were lacking in an awareness of how unexamined cultural orientations were influencing their interactions for the worse. The distance and lack of physical contact among the members was masking – but not eliminating – cultural differences. My task was to lead them toward a higher level of performance. Here’s how.
I define the cultural RISK process as a four-phase approach to cross-cultural management. First, you must be able to Recognise the cultural differences at work in a situation. Secondly, you need to understand the actual or potential Impact of those differences on how you work together. Third, you need to Strategise about the best way forward, and lastly you need to apply Know-How for implementing your strategy.
Let me illustrate this process by using the Z-team I mentioned above as an example.
To begin, I had to help the team take off its mask, and look deeper into its own cultural psyche. Utilising the Worldprism Profiler model of cultural differences, I saw several areas that were creating havoc. Let me summarize some of the major differences in the chart below:
|Japan Members||French Members|
Before working with the team to identify cultural differences, many of the internal tensions were seen as personality-based. By de-personalising many of the differences and putting them into the culture arena it was possible to discuss the tensions in a more objective and productive way. Individuals didn’t need to feel under personal attack.
It should be obvious from the chart above that there were significant cultural differences on the team. The next step in the process was to identify the actual and potential impact of these differences on team collaboration. For example, on activities like participation, problem-solving and decision making, running meetings, information sharing, goal setting and planning, conflict management, and communication.
One area in which I could see a major problem on the Z-team was in goal-setting and planning. At the end of a team-building session, the French were very happy to set objectives and milestone dates. For them, the dates would only be a guideline; there was always room for some flexibility. The Japanese members became very uncomfortable. First, all the stakeholders impacted by the decisions were not present and, therefore, no consensus could be reached. Given a lack of consensus, it was also, impossible to commit to any date. Once a date had been agreed to – in their eyes – it was fixed. It would cause great loss of face to miss the date. There was a completely different perception of risk.
The reality on the team was that the Europeans would set goals and make plans while the Asian members would avoid, withdraw, be vague and non-committal. Conversations would go around in circles with each side thinking the other was crazy.
In any cross-cultural interaction, there are always strategic options. One side can accommodate to the other (“I’ll make these adaptations to work effectively with you.”) Assimilate (“I’ll do it your way.”) Blend (“Let’s mix both approaches.”) Create (“Let’s find a new way that can work for both of us.”) Separate (“You do it your way, and we’ll do it our way.”) The key criteria when choosing an approach should be which strategy offers the greatest potential for creating value for the business?
In terms of the Z-team, the chosen short-term strategy for moving forward in goal setting and planning was to assimilate – the French to the Japanese approach. There was no way the Europeans were going to change the very deep-rooted, consensual approach in the Asian business. To fight against it would simply increase resistance. The medium term strategy was to work together to find a good blend of approaches – one that handled lower risk items differently from the higher risk ones (ones needing a higher level of consensus and planning).
The last stage in the process was to develop the skills needed to implement the strategies successfully. Some of this skill-building on the Z-team had actually begun in the Recognise phase, particularly developing cultural perceptiveness and empathy. Additional skills needed on the Z-team included spoken and written cross-cultural communication, and win-win negotiating.
As global companies seek to leverage their internal or outsourced distributed talent, global virtual teams are becoming the norm. So much goes unobserved and unspoken on cross-border virtual teams; differences tend to hide under a mask created by distance and impersonal technology. Opportunities for discussing the actual or potential impact of cultural differences on team success are often only created after damage has already been done – when the silence is recognised to be resentment rather than agreement.
Being proactive with the cultural RISK process can help reduce the risk.
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