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Success with Globally Distributed Teams

As companies utilize distributed teams more extensively, the landscape of the work environment is changing. These distributed teams can be excellent venues for a diverse mix of perspectives, ideas and insight however there is huge potential for misunderstanding or blocks arising from socio-cultural or language differences.  Following are 5 key points that, when followed, can assist in creating a sense of community, connection and communication between individuals who may be situated thousands of miles apart.

  • Rapport:
Building rapport within the team is important because it is the foundation upon which the entire team is built; it is the connection between individuals.  Take the time to find out who the other team members are as people, not just their role at the company.  What do they do outside of work?  What is their history at the company?  Team rapport is the glue that holds the team together and the starting point for building trust.

  • Ritual:   
Humans find comfort in structure, consistency and predictability.  Rituals serve to tie the team together, making the entire group feel part of the "us" rather than feeling split into "us" and "them".  Rituals are those often-overlooked small events or behaviors that team members eventually come to count on and take comfort in their familiarity.  This could be something as simple as an established format for the meetings or as silly as assigning the joke of the day to a different regional group, to be shared at team meetings.

  • Rephrase/Re-frame:
When there is miscommunication between team members, it is often due to do the fact that some members have different native languages.  Unfortunately, such miscommunication may be interpreted as a lack of cooperation, stubbornness or even incompetence.  If a particular request has repeatedly been disregarded, or an individual seems unable to grasp a particular concept or process, try rephrasing the request or description using different word groupings or patterns.  Languages differ on basics like sentence structure, therefore subtleties can get lost in translation.  What not do do:  repeat the same phrase over and over, or louder.

  • Rules:
Keep in mind that each society and culture is comprised of unwritten, unspoken rules.  These guide our behaviors and give us our acceptable social-behaviorial parameters.   The process of enculturation occurs as we grow from infancy, so we spend a lifetime learning those rules in order to be successful in our own society.  When we interact with others from different cultures, we are not operating within the same set of rules, so confusion and misunderstanding can occur.  When I was in Bangalore, India recently, I spoke to a product manager who shared with me his experience of being unaware of one of the unwritten, unspoken rules of his US based counterparts.  His US based team member asked him if he could participate in a conference call, which would be scheduled after the Indian product manager's usual work hours.  The Indian product manager explained that he would no longer be in the office at that time, because it fell after his work hours.  This ended up causing great friction within the team because they perceived the Indian product manager as not willing to go the extra mile, when in fact he did not know that he was implicitly being asked to stay later in the day to accommodate the conference call.  Once he understood what was being asked between the lines, he was happy to accommodate the later call.

  • Release:
It goes without saying that the greatest challenge of a globally dispersed team is the geographic distance that separates the team members.  One essential component of successfully working in that environment is the ability to release tight control and allow those dispersed team members to stand on their own.  It is not helpful to be a control freak and it is especially not helpful to be one from 8,000 miles away.  Trust that the company who hired these individuals saw an adequate level of competency and skill in them.  If you are incorporating the principles mentioned above, you should feel more at ease releasing responsibility to your team members.

Globally distributed teams are incredibly complex and these tips are only a small window into improving the dynamics of these groups.  What particular methods or tactics have you found to be successful?

Paula Gray
the anthropologist

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