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Global teams that work

Paper map of the globe focused in on Europe

Tsedal Neeley

To succeed in the global economy, more and more companies are relying on a geographically dispersed workforce. They build teams that offer the best functional expertise from around the world, combined with deep, local knowledge of the most promising markets. They draw on the benefits of international diversity, bringing together people from many cultures with varied work experiences and different perspectives on strategic and organizational challenges. All of this helps multinational companies compete in the current business environment.

But managers who actually lead global teams are up against stiff challenges. Creating successful work groups is hard enough when people share the same office space. When team members come from different countries and backgrounds and are working in different locations, communication can deteriorate, misunderstanding can ensue, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust.

One basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance—the degree of emotional connection among team members. When people on a team all work in the same place, the level of social distance is usually low. Coworkers who are geographically separated, however, can’t easily connect and align, so they struggle to develop effective interactions. Mitigating social distance therefore becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.

Idea in brief

    • The problem

      When teams consist of people from different cultures working apart from one another in different locations, social distance — or a lack of emotional connection — can cause miscommunication, misunderstanding and distrust.

    • The solution

      The leaders of global teams can improve the workings of their groups by using the author’s SPLIT framework to identify and address five sources of social distance: structure, process, language, identity and technology.

Structure and the perception of power

In the context of global teams, the structural factors determining social distance are the location and number of sites where team members are based and the number of employees who work at each site.

The fundamental issue here is the perception of power. If most team members are located in Germany, for instance, with two or three in the United States and in South Africa, there may be a sense that the German members have more power. The situation is exacerbated when the leader is at the site with the most people or the one closest to company headquarters: team members at that site tend to ignore the needs and contributions of their colleagues at other locations.

Views from a dispersed team

The marketing team of a multinational pharmaceutical company had 17 members in different locations. Each group, depending on size and proximity to the leader in Boston, saw the power structure differently.

To correct real and perceived power imbalances between different groups, a leader needs to get three key messages across:

    • Who we are

      The team is a single entity, even though individual members may be very different from one another. The leader should encourage sensitivity to differences but look for ways to bridge them and build unity.

    • What we do

      It’s important to remind team members that they share a common purpose and to direct their energy toward business-unit or corporate goals. The leader should periodically highlight how everyone’s work fits into the company’s overall strategy and advances its position in the market.

    • I am there for you

      Team members located far from the leader require frequent contact with him or her. A brief phone call or email can make all the difference in conveying that their contributions matter.

Process and the importance of empathy

If colleagues can talk informally around a watercooler, they are more likely to develop an empathy that helps them interact productively in more formal contexts.

To foster mutual understanding among geographically dispersed teams, leaders need to make sure they build the following moments into the process for meeting virtually:

    • Feedback on routine interactions

      Remote team members should use the phone, email or even videoconferencing to check in with one another and ask how the collaboration is going.

    • Unstructured time

      Even when people are spread all over the world, small talk is still a powerful way to promote trust. So when planning your team’s call-in meetings, factor in five minutes for light conversation before business gets under way.

    • Time to disagree

      Leaders should encourage disagreement both about the team’s tasks and about the process by which the tasks get done. The challenge, of course, is to take the heat out of the debate. Framing meetings as brainstorming opportunities lowers the risk that people will feel pressed to choose between sides.

Language and the fluency gap

In global teams, varying levels of fluency with the chosen common language are inevitable—and likely to heighten social distance.

Mitigating these differences typically involves insisting that all team members respect three rules for communicating in meetings:

    • Dial down dominance

      Strong speakers must agree to slow down their speaking pace and use fewer idioms, slang terms and esoteric cultural references when addressing the group. They should limit the number of comments they make within a set time frame, depending on the pace of the meeting and the subject matter. They should actively seek confirmation that they’ve been understood, and they should practice active listening by rephrasing others’ statements for clarification or emphasis.

    • Dial up engagement

      Less fluent speakers should monitor the frequency of their responses in meetings to ensure that they are contributing. As with fluent speakers, team members who are less proficient in the language must always confirm that they have been understood. Similarly, when listening, they should be empowered to say they have not understood something.

    • Balance participation to ensure inclusion

      Global team leaders must keep track of who is and isn’t contributing and deliberately solicit participation from less fluent speakers. Sometimes it may also be necessary to get dominant-language speakers to dial down to ensure that the proposals and perspectives of less fluent speakers are heard.

Rules of engagement for team meetings

All team members should be guided by these three rules to ensure that influence on decisions is not dictated by fluency in the company’s “lingua franca.”

Technology and the connection challenge

The modes of communication used by global teams must be carefully considered, because the technologies can both reduce and increase social distance.

In making decisions about which technology to use, a leader must ask the following:

    • Should communication be instant?

      Choosing between instant and delayed forms of communication can be especially challenging for global teams, which may span multiple time zones. Instant technologies are valuable when leaders need to persuade others to adopt their viewpoint. But if they simply want to share information, then delayed methods such as email are simpler, more efficient and less disruptive to people’s lives. Leaders must also consider the team’s interpersonal dynamics. If the team has a history of conflict, technology choices that limit the opportunities for real-time emotional exchanges may yield the best results.

    • Do I need to reinforce the message?

      Savvy leaders will communicate through multiple platforms to ensure that messages are understood and remembered.

    • Am I leading by example?

      A leader who wants to encourage people to videoconference should communicate this way herself. If she wants employees to pick up the phone and speak to one another, she had better be a frequent user of the phone. And if she wants team members to respond quickly to emails, she needs to set the example.

If leaders act on these fronts, social distance is sure to shrink, not expand. When that happens, global teams can embrace and practice the kinds of innovative, respectful, and groundbreaking interactions that drive the best ideas forward.

This article was originally published at Harvard Business Review and is republished here with permission.


Portrait of Tsedal Neeley

Tsedal Neeley

Tsedal Neeley is an associate professor at Harvard Business School and the founder of the consulting firm Global Matters.