“Talk with people who make you see the world differently”
– Author Unknown
As the global nature of business continues to grow, geographically dispersed teams are more and more common in today’s workforce. Offering access to a greater range of talent and deep local knowledge in established and emerging markets they draw on the benefits of international and cultural diversity by bringing together people with varied knowledge, experiences and perspectives.
Whilst there is no doubt of the enormous benefits that such rich diversity can bring it is not without its challenges for leaders of global teams. Creating cohesive, connected teams is often hard enough when everyone is local and sharing the same pool of resources, networks and office space, but add in the complexity of cultural difference, language barriers, varying locations and time zones and it is all too easy to see how communication, misunderstanding and confusion can emerge.
In her recent Harvard Business Review article ‘Why Global Teams Work’, Tsedal Neeley states that the primary challenge for global leaders to overcome is that of social distance. Her study of successful global teams highlights the one basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t is the degree of emotional connection between team members. As she notes, even teams who are culturally diverse but operating in the same place can build trust and rapport much more quickly because of the range of formal and informal interactions that take place. All of a sudden the value of pre-meeting banter and incidental kitchen conversations become so important because all too often when they are taken away so to are some of the moments of connection.
Establishing strong emotional ties between team members is therefore a much-needed priority for leaders with disperse teams. To do this takes deliberate planning, discipline, tact and empathy. Like all strong relationships it also takes a considerable investment of time and resources. Without it though not only are cohesive productive relationships compromised but so to is individual and business success. In a time where global leadership is a much sought after capability, leaders who master the art of leading geographically dispersed teams are firmly establishing their future career path.
So what are the critical considerations for building strong globally connected teams? I would encourage you to consider the following six points:
Create team moments: Moments of shared time are critical for building understanding, cohesion and connection. Moments that celebrate the success that others don’t see; moments to disagree and debate ideas and issues; moments to build awareness of other markets, teams and agendas; moments to simply connect and have those ‘water cooler’ type conversations that so often provide insights, knowledge and context.
Design a team language: Teams that are rich in cultural diversity need to find a common language that defines what they do and how they do it to ensure that miscommunication and misunderstanding is minimised. Creating a shared language also helps to build clarity, momentum and unity amongst those who use it.
Recognise and leverage differences: All too often we stress the importance of finding ‘common ground’ or identifying similarities however the danger of doing that with globally dispersed teams is the ‘us versus them’ dynamic. Recognising the individual differences, knowledge, skills and networks helps remove the stereotypes that all too often get in the way of producing great results.
Revisit objectives and metrics often: The lack of day to day context experienced by dispersed teams combined with the very nature of how quickly things change requires regular review to ensure clarity and momentum is maintained.
Define how conflict is managed: All teams are prone to conflict, however they can arise more quickly in dispersed teams from lack of shared context, misunderstanding of cultural differences and miscommunication. Creating a clear and responsive way to table and address conflict is imperative for global teams to explore different points of view, ways of working and perspectives.
Provide the necessary tools for collaboration: Despite having the capacity to be more connected than ever before, our technology tools can also be one of the greatest barriers when they fail to work are unreliable or not suited to the type of communication required. It is imperative that the tools provided act as enablers and not barriers.
Creating globally connected and cohesive teams is hard work. It takes deliberate and consistent effort on the part of the leader to continually build moments that create shared understanding and trust. However the rewards are high both personally for leaders and the businesses that they lead.