Why Your Global Team Can not Collaborate
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If you’ve managed global projects,
with team members from different cultures, you’ve probably encountered
a number of differences that have presented challenges -- because every
culture has rules that its members take for granted, and those
unwritten rules affect how we think and act in business.
In some cultures, for example,
personal bonds and informal agreements are far more binding than any
formal contract. In others, the meticulous wording of legal documents
is viewed as paramount. High-context cultures leave much of the message
unspecified – to be understood through context, nonverbal cues, and
between-the-lines interpretation of what is actually said. By contrast,
low-context cultures (most of the Germanic or English-speaking
countries) expect messages to be explicit and specific. The former are
looking for meaning and understanding in what is not said – in body
language, in silences and pauses, and in relationships and empathy. The
latter place emphasis on sending and receiving accurate messages
directly, and by being precise with spoken or written words.
Since many cultural challenges are
rightfully attributed to communication issues, you’ve probably tried to
resolve them by establishing better communication tools, guidelines and
protocols. But if the collaboration process is still problematic, and
it’s costing you in terms of missed deadlines, product defects, service
errors, and general team tension, you might need to dig deeper.
That’s where Dr. Karine
Schomer comes in. A former professor of South Asian Studies at the
University of California-Berkeley and dean at Golden Gate
University-San Francisco, she is a cross-cultural management consultant
and executive coach to global project teams, with special expertise
relating to India.
Last year, I spoke on
“The Power of Collaborative Leadership” in seven different countries,
and I always included a section on dealing with virtual and global
teams. But after talking with Karine, I found that I too had barely
scratched the surface. So I was thrilled when she agreed to be
interviewed on the topic.
Carol: What are some of
the deeper things we need to know about cultural differences that can
impact collaboration on global teams?
Karine: From my experience of many
years, there are differences in how people from various cultures
approach carrying out projects and getting things done. These
divergences in fundamental mindset need to be understood, appreciated
and negotiated on a daily basis when you work with global teams. If you
don’t, you’re likely to experience considerable frustration and
performance failures on global projects.
Carol: What are some of
the most striking cultural differences that affect global team
Karine: One is a basic difference in
how agreements may be understood. For example, Americans tend to prefer
clear, detailed agreements about what is going to be done and when.
They’re uneasy with vague expressions of general commitment. Once a
decision has been reached on a course of action, they assume it will be
carried out exactly as decided. The expectation is that individuals and
teams will make only realistic commitments they’re able to keep.
Failure to follow through exactly as agreed is viewed as a sign that a
person or team isn’t trustworthy.
There are cultures,
however, in which agreements are viewed as something more fluid.
They’re expressions of intention, open to revision, guidelines and
aspirational targets, rather than absolute, literal commitments. The
mindset is that one can’t absolutely control circumstances, that things
will come up to change the context of the agreement. And also that new
and better ideas may come up as you’re implementing the agreement.
Carol: I know you also see basic
differences in how mistakes and potential problems get addressed.
Karine: In American business and work
culture, the expectation of the manager or client to whom a project
reports is that any mistakes or potential problems will be promptly
communicated, along with options for addressing them and moving on.
This is the “heads-up” and “don’t blindside me” approach, and it comes
out of a mindset that has problem solving and results at its core, with
little negative emotion attached to acknowledging mistakes and problems.
In many other cultures, by contrast,
emotional considerations of saving face, sensitivity to criticism, and
reluctance to disappoint the boss or client can pose obstacles to the
kind of straightforward, no-nonsense, no-blame “admit-and-warn”
behavior Americans generally expect. The mindset about mistakes and
potential problems is to quietly put in whatever effort is required to
resolve them, without bringing potentially bad news to the attention of
the manager or client. It’s a “mask-and-solve” approach that has its
own logic and integrity, but is often misunderstood by Americans as
Carol: One of the biggest differences
I see is in the value placed on working from set plans versus
flexibility and improvisation. Can you tell me more about this?
Karine: Yes. The American
approach to getting things done, especially in larger and more
established organizations and enterprises, is to spend a good deal of
time up front carefully planning the work, so it can be achieved in the
most efficient way possible. Clearly articulated goals, deliverables,
deadlines, timelines and processes. It’s a systematic approach that
tries to anticipate eventualities and create a road map that goes as
directly to the goal as possible. Built-in review and opportunities for
changes at particular points along the way, but ideally not too many
places calling for ad hoc improvisation.
Some cultures plan in ways that are
even more systematic and detailed than is the norm in the U.S., and
Americans on global projects may experience this as too rigid and
constricting. But what’s even more difficult is adapting to cultures in
which systematic planning is less valued. Where the approach to
planning is to agree on general guidelines and targets, and then work
closely together, in a flexible and spontaneous mode, to move the
project forward. This approach, incidentally, is one that requires much
closer collaboration and constant communication, whereas the more
systematic planning approach allows people to work on their own from
the plan and not spend as much time on discussions and interactions.
This, too, is a cultural preference.
Carol: You wrote about one dramatic
example of this difference in your article “What Can We Learn from
India’s Low-Cost Mars Orbiter Mission?” I encourage people to read the
full article. It’s about India’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), which
entered orbit around Mars on September 23, 2014, two days after NASA’s
MAVEN orbiter. MOM took 18 months to build and cost $74 million, NASA’s
project took over 5 years and cost $671 million. You wrote about an
aspect of the Indian way of getting things done that contributed to
making this feat possible.
Karine: Yes, and that article has
received a lot of attention. What it looks at is a cultural approach
that stresses flexibility, focusing on immediate goals, and working
within resource and time constraints, as opposed to planning for
optimal results and long-term systemic impacts. This approach is
captured by the colloquial Hindi term for “ingenious improvisation” –
jugaad. This more “entrepreneurial” approach can often accomplish the
impossible, but also contains within itself the seeds of potentially
dramatic failure (and conflicts about standards, quality control, and
Carol: How does this relate to
improving collaboration on global project teams?
Karine: If you can anticipate that
certain members of your team may have a more jugaad-like cultural
preference for improvisation and spontaneity, while others are
culturally more comfortable with systematic and long-term planning, you
can work with them to bridge this gap and create a hybrid culture of
collaboration. What you need to do is to create among them an awareness
of these differences in approach. Above all, don’t turn a blind eye to
these deep cultural differences or assume that, given time and contact,
they will automatically disappear.
Carol: Good point. And
I’d like to add that (as with all cultural variances) we’re not talking
about right or wrong – just “different.”
About the Author
Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.is an international
Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of
language in the workplace.
coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of
Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
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