With cross-cultural teamwork on the rise around the world, learning to be a great global virtual team leader is becoming more and more important—and challenging. Consider that the accepted approach to teamwork in one place is often quite the opposite for teammates located 4,000 miles away! If your virtual team members don’t know how to handle each other’s different workplace values, disagreements can lead to damaging workplace drama and even distrust.
For example, I like to respond to 95% of my emails the same day, but team members in Brazil might take several days to respond. Japanese colleagues might cringe when teammates outside of Japan give individual feedback during group calls. And Germans might find the boastful sharing of accomplishments and self-promotion on the part of their American colleagues suspect and even excessive.
Cultural differences like these are unavoidable, but in this day and age, they’re a fact of (business) life. The problem is, without proper cross-cultural training, it can be hard to reconcile such fundamental variances in the way we do things in the workplace. Trust is the glue that helps global virtual teams maintain high performance—but cultural misunderstandings can lead to distrust that pulls performance down.
For a global leader of a diverse virtual team, creating an inclusive environment that fosters trust is an essential cornerstone to success. A 2016 Google study detailed by the New York Times Magazine can help us unpack that idea further.
Discovering the Formula for the Perfect Global Virtual Team
When trying to figure out how to create the ideal high-performing team, Google researchers found nothing in their extensive data “showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.”
Instead, what mattered most was how teammates interacted with one another, regardless of their background or how bright they were considered. Specifically, the two dominant patterns of successful teams were:
1) Team members spoke in equal amounts, and
2) Exhibited high levels of emotional intelligence.
The researchers called number two “social sensitivity,” which means that team members “were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.”
These two traits are the makings of “psychological safety,” which is closely linked to trust. Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as a “shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.” The idea is that team members—whether global, virtual, or otherwise—share a sense of confidence that their counterparts won’t reject, embarrass, or punish one another for speaking up. Instead, team members are safe to feel included, are comfortable being themselves, and therefore can learn to trust one another despite having different cultural preferences.
Global Leaders Establish Trust with Team Guidelines and Norms
Bridging the kinds of cultural divides that lead to distrust among global virtual teams can be challenging. So, here at RW3 CultureWizard, we designed a team profiler called TeamPlace to help global team leaders create their own guidelines and norms to establish team trust and move towards high performance when working across cultures.
TeamPlace leverages the CultureWizard Intercultural Awareness Model® to analyze work style gaps. It then uses that data to display individual cultural values and preferences, which raises awareness of differences between members. This data can be a valuable tool in itself. In fact, one Google researcher from the aforementioned survey said, “Just having data that proves to people that these things are worth paying attention to sometimes is the most important step in getting them to actually pay attention. Don’t underestimate the power of giving people a common platform and operating language.”
TeamPlace then establishes a common vocabulary for teams to articulate the way they feel about their teamwork. This shared language can unify a team and lead to a culture of high-performance. Then, TeamPlace takes that knowledge further by generating a team charter to foster the level of innovation and success that global organizations need to thrive.
Here’s how it works: Imagine the screenshot below is your team’s particular distribution across the cultural Dimension we call Hierarchy. Note that the “You” bubble is more hierarchical than the rest of the team. What does this mean? You might be reticent to speak up during a team meeting where senior members are present. Or, during the decision-making process, you might defer to those with more experience even though you have your own ideas. All of this comes from your personal cultural value system that tells you it’s more appropriate to hold back in the face of superiors.
A global team leader can use the completed profile to offer virtual team members suggestions on how to best bridge intercultural differences to foster an inclusive environment that nurtures trust. To help the sample team’s Hierarchical and Egalitarian members work together, suggestions would include:
· Create a detailed agenda identifying who leads meetings, who speaks when, who keeps time, and who takes meeting notes.
· Schedule 1-on-1 meetings to review contributions with more hierarchical teammates who might be hesitant to raise their ideas.
· Encourage more egalitarian participants to be careful of interrupting others and instead give everyone a chance to contribute by allowing silence.
In my experience facilitating team-building workshops, almost every team profile I’ve ever examined consistently points to best practices like social sensitivity, equality in conversational turn-taking and spending more time face-to-face developing interpersonal trust.
This can be an invaluable tool for global leaders in the current global business landscape, because creating an inclusive work environment with employees who trust each other is an important key to success.