How to manage virtual cross-cultural teams – interculturality

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In this blog we talk to TPC Leadership Associate Partners Catherine Bardwell and Valeria Cardillo Piccolino about how to manage virtual teams and in particular cross-cultural teams.

How to manage virtual teams

In our last blog, we explored why it’s important to capitalise on internal resources by designing inclusive workplaces.

Inclusion often encounters resistance among those who consider it a passing HR trend and feel the voice of the diversity and inclusion (D&I) advocates is too paternalistic. But often this resistance exists because we lack perception of the ways in which we are non-inclusive.

While it’s true that only a few people are intentionally non-inclusive, unless we approach inclusion from all angles, employees won’t necessarily feel included, nor will the true creative potential of our organisations be realised.

For cross-cultural teams, when commonly overlooked voices begin to be heard, the results can be dramatic. As Kim Belair of Sweet Baby Inc. said in a panel regarding interactive media, “representation has the potential to be as innovative as new tech.”

“Cross-cultural virtual teams have become the norm in many corporations,” says Catherine Bradwell, Associate Partner at TPC Leadership. “Yet we still underinvest in cross-cultural skills necessary to create high-performing teams.”

Therefore, “for the deeper work to happen, inclusion cannot remain HR policy,” says Valeria Cardillo Piccolino, a TPC Leadership Associate Partner. “It must involve all leaders.”

“Let me explain,” says Catherine. “Do you hear your people say: ‘Lack of participation’, ’no decision-making’, ‘boring meetings’?” If so, they may be misdiagnosing the situation.

“Some cultures may tend to be comfortable taking the lead in a group conversation,” says Catherine, “But other cultures are less inclined. Now is the time to understand different perspectives and how to best adapt one’s own style to better lead cross-cultural virtual teams.”

Grow in awareness of cultural norms 

“In any culture there are certain ways of behaving that are considered dominant,” says Valeria. “These dominant traits shape what we perceive to be polite or acceptable. And they create filters that affect our understanding of others and the wider world.”

A common difference in dominant culture characteristics is that of introversion vs. extroversion, for example. For in some cultures it is considered rude to interrupt or express dissent, while in others forthrightness is perceived to be a sign of confidence and strength. This affects people regardless of their personality.

“Your personality determines how you WANT to behave, culture determines how you SHOULD behave,” says Csaba Toth, developer of the Global DISC framework. Personality still plays a part, but an extroverted South Korean will still act differently to an extrovert born and raised in Amsterdam.

Grow in awareness of unconscious bias

It affects all leaders and teams, but unconscious bias can become acute in virtual teams. In our pursuit of efficiency – and desiring to keep our fifth zoom meeting that day as short as possible – we default to the path of least resistance.

“Micro affirmations or micro-behaviours create a barrier to inclusion, even more so because they act at an unconscious level” says Valeria.

One example of a micro-behaviour is not involving certain colleagues in a challenging and strategic project because we perceive them as ‘not fitting.’ And this could simply be because they are very different from the dominant, inner-circle culture. The problem is that, in the majority of cases, we won’t be aware of our internal logic and we will just follow our ‘managerial instinct’ or, ‘the gut’.

“Biases form from existing relationships, and without realising it, we find ourselves working with, listening to and handing strategic responsibility to the same few people. This is the effect of ‘affinity bias’ or ‘similarity bias’. We like people whom we perceive similar to us.”

Unconscious bias by its very nature is not malicious or intended, but unless we deliberately act to include – forcing ourselves to be curious, discussing the effect our actions could have on someone with a different set of values – we will continue to create exclusive inner circles of trust, populated by people like us. And we will inevitably overlook and miss out on the full range of competencies in our teams.

HR can address some issues directly, particularly when it comes to diversity. But inclusion is the responsibility of everyone in leadership. As Brenda Trenowden, the Global Chair of the 30% Club says, “If you throw a lot of diversity at an organization and there isn’t an inclusive culture, it’s not going to stick. So we really need to focus on both.”

Create space in the virtual space

When it comes to leading cross-cultural teams, every detail matters. Whenever someone in our team concedes an argument, or refuses to push back when they are contradicted, we need to ask ourselves, “are the dominant traits of their culture at play here?” Their opinion might be unmoved, yet they may have let the issue go for the sake of politeness. This is just one of the many cultural factors we need to consider.

“Working in a virtual space requires us to put in practice our sensitivity to how different cultures perceive not only our non-verbal or paraverbal communication,” says Valeria, “but also our written communication.”

“As an example of this, someone I coach recently expressed in a direct and assertive way his ‘right,’ to take a few hours leave. The email he sent to his boss simply stated that he was informing her about this.” says Valeria. “But his email, he realised during our coaching session, could have been perceived a bit rude or too direct by his boss, an Asian young woman whom he met not long ago.”

Working virtually is also putting our capability to manage our work and private life under pressure. Managers need to be aware of their own expectations – and whether they are inappropriate in light of the other demands a team member faces.

“Some people have a greater need to switch off,” says Valeria. “And their boundaries need to be respected.” Those from cultures that lean towards compliance are less likely to make these needs explicit, so managers need to pay attention. If they can read between the lines of cultural context, they will know when a team member needs rest.

When managers are trained in interculturality, unconscious bias will hold less sway, and the needs of team members will be better met. Essentially, those who display different cultural behaviours will not be overlooked for having different needs – and the resulting flow of trust will give new and emerging voices the opportunity to shape strategy, spot errors and expand the range of our collective intelligence.

Our teams will be more innovative than ever. Not just because of the steps that HR took. But because of the steps we all took – to see the brilliance beyond our own culture.

Want more insight on how to move forward? Get in touch with us to find out how we can help.

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