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Mobilize Global Virtual Teams by Avoiding 8 Common Landmines

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Imagine you’re heading a new global team responsible for a major company initiative. The 25 team members represent 10 countries and five continents. You need to get this team moving quickly, and you must rely on a combination of asynchronous and synchronous communication methods.

Even the most seasoned international business professionals may fall into some unexpected and potentially dangerous traps when working with a global virtual team. When we don’t have the benefit of vital nonverbal communications, we tend to ignore or dismiss differences in hopes that having shared goals will be enough to propel everyone ahead at the same time.

This edition of Communiqué outlines some of the most common mistakes made by global virtual team leaders, and offers some suggested remedies.

Mistake #1: Assuming that everyone has more or less the same proficiency in writing, reading and speaking English. Even if your company requires that everyone speaks English fluently, some people will be more at ease communicating, whether verbally or through writing, than others.

Success Strategy: Make sure that you provide multiple communication channels to allow for these differences. For example, if you have a con call, build in the use of a web conferencing tool to enable more people to participate in different ways with confidence and comfort. In general, allocate at least 30% more time for conference calls to allow for mental translations.

Mistake #2: Arranging meeting times and tasks that will require occasional work on weekends, vacations and late evenings. Although some Americans may willingly forego personal time for the greater good of their companies, in many other cultures, personal time is sacrosanct.

Success Strategy: When scheduling work, plan around vacation time and local holidays, rather than asking people to sacrifice private time. Likewise with scheduling team meetings: If some people have to keep very early or late hours to join calls, rotate meeting times so everyone takes turns being inconvenienced. Also consider using asynchronous means to gather input and ideas from those who may not really need to be on the call at 3AM local time.

Mistake #3: Believing that everyone will be equally willing and able to speak candidly. In some cultures, criticizing others’ ideas is considered unacceptably rude, while other cultures relish a vigorous debate.

Success Strategy: Find ways to enable all members to speak their minds safely, even if it means speaking to them 1:1, or offering them an anonymous means of making contributions. Above all, avoid using the “silence is consensus” rule. Otherwise you may imagine you have agreement when in fact you have no idea how certain people really feel or what they think.

Mistake #4: Thinking that all cultures assess trust the same way. Some cultures may place greater value on one’s credibility (such as a college degree, related experience, expertise or seniority), while others may place greater emphasis on reliability (e.g. willingness and ability to follow through on commitments) as a cornerstone of trust.

Success Strategy: Take the time to discover how different members assess trust, and as a team, consciously create operating principles designed to encourage attitudes and behavior that will do the most to build and cultivate trust.

Mistake #5: Creating a one-sized-fits-all team communications plan. Just as individuals may favor certain communication styles, different cultures tend to have different ways of taking in, processing and sharing information. For example, some cultures require explicit details about their tasks before they can start work, while others want only a general framework so they can determine what their tasks should be.

Success Strategy: Learn enough about all of the cultures represented on your team so you can make some first best guesses about communication preferences. As a team, create some agreed-upon team communication norms that work well for most, if not for all.

Mistake #6: Designing a project plan that requires some members to take on multiple jobs. Before you assume that team members will eagerly volunteer when another member is unable to fulfill stated commitments, validate that in fact each member is able and willing to pinch-hit when needed. Some cultures need roles and tasks to be clearly carved out and feel uncomfortable and at times resentful if they are asked to slide into another role, even temporarily. Other cultures value group harmony over individual achievements and are more likely to jump in when and where needed.

Success Strategy: Create a team environment where it’s okay to say no, to make sure that people don’t start over-committing to please you or team members.

Mistake #7: Imagining that everyone has the same definition of “ASAP.” Cultures have different notions about time. Americans tend to value immediate gratification and tend to expect that everyone on the team wants to move as quickly as they do. Some other cultures are more deliberate and circumspect before moving ahead and bristle at being rushed. While some cultures value punctuality, others may regard timeliness as less important.

Success Strategy: Make sure that everyone regards the milestones and deadlines as realistic and achievable, and be explicit when mapping out deliverables and associated dates. For example, instead of stating that a certain report is due next week, indicate that all reports need to be submitted by 5PM (specifying which time zone if important) on which day.

Mistake: #8 Requiring that team decisions are made instantly. Many cultures need to assess input from stakeholders before weighing in. Others prefer making decisions on the fly, often with just partial information. Cultures that value formality may feel disempowered from making decisions without the sanction of their upper management, while others may demand an equal vote, whatever their position.

Success Strategy: Be explicit about how and when decisions will be made, based on whose input, and subject to whose approval. Prepare to build in extra time to allow for some members to conduct the due diligence they need to make decisions if you expect them to follow through later.

The most dangerous mistake people make when leading a cross-cultural team is to assume that we’re more alike than we actually are. And with virtual teams, it’s much harder to discover if we have inadvertently violated cultural norms or disrespected important values, given the absence of nonverbal cues.

Take the time to understand how different cultures learn, communicate and collaborate. While stereotypes can be harmful when they are judgmental and inflexible, generalizations can be extraordinarily helpful in determining how best to cultivate trust and a sense of teamwork among people of different cultures. Your goal is not to neutralize differences, but to understand how you can make differences strengthen the work of the team.