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Why Your Global Team Can not Collaborate


Dr Carol Kinsey Goman - Expert Author

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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 collaboration ?

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 irresponsible avoidance.

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 project schedules).

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

Carol Kinsey Goman, an international Keynote speaker on collaborative leadership and the impact of body language in the workplace. Communications coach to executives to improve their leadership presence and effectiveness.
Leadership blogger for Forbes and author of "The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help - or Hurt - How You Lead.”
Office: 510-526-1727
Berkeley, California

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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2014-10-16 11:40:38 in Personal Articles

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