Global teams face the challenge of having to operate with limited face-to-face contact and across vast distances, time zones, language backgrounds, and contexts, as well as cultural differences. In turn, these differences generate disruptions to team cohesion and top performance outcomes.
To counter those cohesion and performance risks, managing such a globally-dispersed team requires deliberate planning that helps bridge those boundaries. In my work centered on coordination of work across national boundaries — including the implementation of a standard language — I have learned that the most powerful way to overcome these differences is for global managers to create “moments,” sometimes difficult moments. Four types of moments make material difference:
1. Structuring “unstructured” time. Information flows much better with social comfort among team members. But the water cooler talk that builds familiarity among local teams never happens naturally in global teams. It’s the leader’s job to deliberately create opportunities to chat. It starts with modeling informal conversations about non-work matters. You might just say something about taking your car to the garage that morning, for instance, and finding out that you didn’t need just an oil change but your brakes were failing or you need new tires. You’re no mechanic, so how do you know if that’s right? Or that your computer crashed that morning. People will start to join in with their own stories, and they relax and start to see one another as fellow humans.
This is counterintuitive to most professionals today who are stretched for time and attention, but part of your agenda-setting with your global team must include “unstructured” time.
2. Forcing disagreements. Whether it is because of the very nature of telephone conference calls or the cultural backgrounds of some global team members, or the fact that it may be tiring to wait for that perfect opening, global team members don’t always speak up when it matters. Creating moments for disagreements can help generate varied viewpoints on a given task or even the way to accomplish that task. It’s the leader’s job to pose questions that force members to discuss alternative viewpoints: “Gabriel, is this the only way to approach this? Lawrence, what would be a different point of view from your experience? Can we think about a different way to write this code?” You will soon learn that silence means that members are suppressing ideas that could enhance your tasks and processes. Actively creating these disagreements will also shape an environment where people feel comfortable with alternative approaches, one of the assets of global teams.
3. Stressing differences. Typically people talk about the importance of stressing commonalities and similarities in the context of diversity of any sort. The problem with global teams is that they are prone to viewing distant members as a homogenous group and even falling prey to social categorization or the “us” versus “them” dynamic. Creating moments around differences or what I call “good differences” — in expertise, mindset, training, and the like — individualizes people and counters stereotyping risks. The way to stress good differences may be by talking about the four years that a team member has been in a relevant job role, or the deep knowledge some members have on the best way to penetrate a particular market. Leaders need to think about the valuable differences among their team members that they should actively invoke to increase everyone’s productivity.
4. Creating “awareness” moments. One of the greatest problems with global teams is that they don’t share the same context in their everyday work. Members have no idea about the work environment, pace, scale or scope of their counterparts worldwide. The lack of a shared context leads people to make misattribution errors (he’s stupid), generates conflict (it’s their fault if something goes wrong), and a whole host of other disruptive behaviors.
My colleague, Mark Mortensen, and I have identified two types of knowledge — direct and reflected — that help fill those awareness contextual gaps. Direct knowledge involves norms, rules, and context about the personal characteristics, relationships, and behaviors of other collaborators. You build it ideally through short site visits, but you can also build it through extended online interactions. Working side-by-side for a time allows people to observe, for instance, who works well under pressure, how people allocate their time, and how the social networks play out on a day-to-day basis. Such insights give teammates a better understanding of their colleagues’ attitudes, behaviors, and motivations, fostering the development of trust. Site visits aren’t always practical, of course, and extended online interactions can be a reasonable proxy.
Reflected knowledge has to do with learning how others see and hear you. As an example, one team we studied sent a French engineer to the company’s California office. While there, she realized that the common practice among her French colleagues of responding to emails from California in the afternoons — which allowed them uninterrupted stretches of work — added an overnight delay to correspondence. The visit allowed her to link the time delay with a new perception of how the two offices interact.
It’s hard enough to get people who are co-located onto the same page. Add to that the complexity of multiple regions, languages, cultures and interactions that are often mediated through technology, and you can be sure that cohesion will never come without a deliberate push from the leader. In short, it requires a conscious and consistent effort on the part of the leader to create moments that build and reinforce mutual understanding and trust.
Have you worked on or led a global team, where working across vast boundaries resulted in confusion, conflict, or inefficiencies? Have you experimented with creating “moments” that can help bridge the disconnect?
This post is part of the HBR Insight Center on The Secrets of Great Teams.
Tsedal Neeley is an Assistant Professor in the Organizational Behavior area at Harvard Business School. Her work focuses on the challenges of global collaboration, particularly the adoption of a standard language.