Leading Global Virtual Teams

A Global Virtual Team (GVT) is any work team that must communicate and collaborate to reach a common objective, but are separated by geographic distance (including time zones) and social distance (differences in language, power, culture.)   

In this article we focus on managing the multiple facets of distance in global teams.  

Working Across Boundaries  

Working with people who are not in the same country, let alone in the same room as you are, creates boundaries that extend far beyond geographical distance. Time zone automatically requires team leaders to use greater care in coordinating meetings. Language, deep-rooted values and beliefs learned  from an early age, upbringing, cultural environment, personal experience, and social class can all affect communication and expectations when a workforce convenes.   

A common byproduct of social distance is misattribution, which all humans do when they are trying to  assimilate to new data; Individuals are more likely to attribute behavior to personal traits rather than environmental influences.  

Consider the scenario: An incredibly talented senior executive from Latin America with a proven performance record of accomplishment gives a presentation to his global team in English. The  presentation does not go well – he struggles to express himself in English and gives only the basic facts  for a complex new project he is proposing. When questioned, he is hesitant to disagree with the other  senior leaders and does not present persuasive arguments in support of his ideas. To make matters  worse, the presentation is delivered via screen sharing app only, so the meeting participants are unable  to gain reassurance from the presenter’s facial expressions and body language. The other  executives may walk away from the call doubting the presenter’s competency in his role.  

In this scenario, people unfairly attributed incompetence to this executive without considering the difficulties inherent in a foreign language. Lack of English fluency was perceived to signify a lack of competence. Social distance and misattribution are directly correlated.   

Bridging the Social Distance  

PMs/Leaders will not always have the luxury of designing their own teams. Most often, leaders inherit existing teams and are left to figure out how to make the best of what they have been given.   

There are two common challenges related to the structure of the groups: problematic subgroups and imbalance within the groups. When multiple members of a group work in different sites, they often develop an intense sense of allegiance with each other. This allegiance can come at a cost, however. Such groups often identify as underdogs and unconsciously resent the person designated to lead them,  particularly if that person is in another country. 

Furthermore, people tend to categorize along geographical lines. Without meaning to, they use the  primal distinction between “us” and “them” to orient themselves as they complete tasks with distance colleagues.   

A perceived and actual imbalance of power also occurs if the number of people differs widely between subgroups. For example, a group of three in one location and one in another might lead to feelings of exclusion for the solo person. People in larger groups can develop resentment for the minority group,  based on their belief, perhaps, that this subgroup will try to get away with contributing less than its fair  share. Meanwhile, those in the minority group can feel threatened, believing the majority is attempting  to usurp what little power and voice it has. To complicate matters, those fears may be well-founded. Members who sit near the headquarters, or with the team leaders, tend to ignore the needs and  contributions of other people in the team outside their location. A study of three international teams in  the automotive industry showed that employee groups who perceived themselves as “low status” align  with their own stereotypes of how the high-status group conducted its own work. This  misrepresentation led to greater conflict and reduced collaboration between the groups. In the same study, when employee groups perceived themselves as “high status” as compared to others, they were more likely to communicate openly, share knowledge, and foster cross-team learning. We must understand how perceived and actual power imbalances among subgroups in our own teams influence  interactions between their members.   

Communication is a significant challenge for global teams. If not carefully managed, language diversity can easily lead to the development of divisive subgroups within teams. A policy that establishes one common language, such as English, for an organization, can influence pathways to power and control  within an organization that differ for native and nonnative speakers. Therefore, it is essential that team  leaders should make sure that team members know that each one is responsible for contributing to the successful implementation of the business language – no matter their level of fluency.   

The most productive language-related behaviors for global groups are referred to as “dial down dominance” and “dial up engagement”.  

Dial Down Dominance  

Fluent/native English speakers need to work on helping others to join the front lines of discussion. They can do so by slowing down their speaking pace and using inclusive language when addressing the group. In order to refrain from dominating the conversation, they can limit themselves to a certain number of  comments within a certain time frame, depending on the pace and subject matter of the meeting. In addition, fluent/native speakers can listen actively, rephrasing another’s statement for clarification rather than adding his or her own observations. Everyone deserves fair and respectful treatment from others. We are all biased to some degree but isolating and excluding others can negatively affect a  productive, inspiring, and creative working environment.   

Dial Up Engagement

Less fluent speakers, on the other hand, share responsibility to include themselves in the discussion despite the discomfort they may feel in using a non-native language. Again, depending on the pace of the meeting, such team members might attempt to make a certain number of verbal contributions within a certain time frame. In addition to resisting silence and withdrawal in the meetings, non-fluent  

members should resist other avoidance behaviors. At the same time, they should resist the temptation  to use their mother tongues in the presence of other team members who might share this language.  Switching between the common business language and one’s native tongue is called “code-switching”.  Code-switching into a language that not everyone knows, and that is not the official business  language of the group, can cause alienation among the other group members.  

Conclusion  

Social distance will be pervasive in the global team. However, with a clear understanding of the  problems, along with much practice, leaders can meet this challenge. Problems and patterns may  re-emerge as teams shift, disband and regroup. And like people, no two teams are exactly the same. In managing the global team, global leaders will engage in their own process of rediscovering the most effective ways to lead their groups to achieve more. 

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