Perspectives & Possibilities – Global Virtual Teams / Karen Cvitkovich


By Karen Cvitkovich
Mosaic Global Solutions

As I hung up the phone from a diagnostic interview with a member of a virtual, global team I had a kind of pit in my stomach. I had agreed to facilitate a face-to-face teambuilding for a US / Israeli team that had just been brought together after an acquisition. Things were tense. I knew this and that was why the teambuilding was happening; yet I was struck by how angry they seemed to be with one another. I heard more than once from those I interviewed, “Some of these people I have known for years, and they just are not acting like themselves… everyone seems unhappy and we just are not meeting our goals because of it.”

After working for more than twenty year as consultant in global teams, I believe firmly that diversity of perspective can drive innovation and have a positive impact on a team’s ability to reach their goals. In general, diverse teams are more innovative and creative. I have seen many examples of this in multiple industries and yet when teams do have a high degree of conflict and it is not managed well, the opposite effect can happen. Multicultural teams can be even less productive than homogenous teams.

So, what was getting in the way of all that great innovation and productivity in this team I was working with? Everywhere I go in the world, I find people want three things:
• They want to be listened to.
• They want to be understood and
• They want to be respected.

The challenge is that the behaviors people look for to feel these things tend to vary by country culture. When people of different cultural groups do not feel listened to, understood or respected by each other it impacts how they act and “show up” at work in the deepest of ways. When I did facilitate the session with the team I began with a simple exercise:

“Think of a person who you feel really connected to. Someone who listens, understands and respects you. Picture that person in your mind. Now tell me, how do you act when you are around that person.” People responded with words like, “I act like myself. I am confident. I am free to be who I want to be.” Then I asked them the opposite, “Now, as painful as it may be, picture a person who you work with who you feel does not listen, understand or respect you. How do you act with this person?” With this scenario, I was met with comments like, “I feel I need to protect myself. I am defensive and I doubt myself.”

Bottom line, the Americans and Israelis did not feel respected by each other. The key for this group was to help them to understand the cultural differences that were the root of this disconnect – the gap between “intention” and “outcome” in their interactions. In her book, “The Culture Map”, Erin Meyer outlines key areas in which cultures tend to be similar and different. [1] She reviews a variety of scales of difference, but two stood out as I worked with this team:

All members of the team agreed the goal was for them to improve their teamwork and ability to meet outcomes, but for the Israeli’s I spoke to meant “more conflict” because if we have good teamwork we should be even more able to express disagreement openly. For the Americans on the team “better teamwork” meant less conflict and many commented on how uncomfortable they felt with the level of open conflict. Also, the Americans felt offended when the Israelis were either late for meetings or accepting calls or interruptions during meetings. This made the Americans feel they were not respected and that their time was less seen as less important. For the Israeli’s they felt the Americans needed to be more flexible. For both groups, understanding the differences in their work style was a “cultural difference” and not intentionally offensive was important but also creating the space for them to really listen to each other was essential.

We need to recognize the power of diverse perspectives and the importance of creating a team where every member feels listened to, understood and respected and that that means different things do different people based on their culture. Through this recognition the power of perspectives can be fully realized and we can all accomplish more together!

What helps bridge the differences in perspectives on issues?
In an earlier blog, I reflected on one team I worked with that was really struggling and the key similarities and differences that helped them to work through their challenges. Through our work with multinational teams and through the interviews of over 100 individuals who were identified by their organizations as really successful global leaders, we have developed a process that can help teams achieve their potential. [2]

1. Listen: First step in collaborating across different perspectives is to set aside your point of view for a moment and listen!
2. Relate: Does everyone involved in this process know each other, and how can we develop a foundation of personal trust and mutual understanding across cultural differences?
3. Inquire: What do each of us not know about this situation that we need to know, and how can we work together to find it out? What are the indisputable facts and what are the perspectives? Are there aspects of my style or strategic approach that I should consider changing to better support our work?
4. Co-Create: Who are likely to be key players in influencing the decision and implementing the outcome – even those who haven’t previously been decision- makers – and how can I involve them in creating the solution?
5. Commit: Does each person who participated in the process feel that the final outcome is his or her own? Do they have some pride of authorship? Have we fully leveraged the different perspectives represented in the groups working toward the change?

How do we achieve this virtually?
Managing a face-to-face team has its many challenges. Add on to that the cultural differences and the virtual element, and the true challenges begin. In a recent research at INSEAD in Paris, they looked at how work is managed when teams are homogeneous and co-located and contrasted that with best practices for when the teams are diverse and virtual. What they found was fascinating. Their research indicated that teams of any kind tend to manage their work in
one of three ways:

1. Leader tells the team what to do;
2. The team has formal working agreements in areas such as decisions and virtual communication that decide how the team manages work;
3. The team makes it up as they go along and every project is managed differently.

What INSEAD discovered, perhaps not surprisingly, is that in the homogeneous and co-located teams, overwhelmingly they used #3: The team makes it up as they go along and every project is managed differently. What they further discovered is that as the teams in organizations then become global and virtual, they try to manage the work in the same way and it just does not work! Their research shows that for a team that is virtual and global to manage work, they need far more low context, specific and co-decided working agreements. There is also the need, especially in hierarchical cultures, for leaders to, in some cases, make more decisions and be
very clear about those decisions. In other words:

• Teams need to co-create specific working agreements and hold each other accountable for abiding by those agreements

Perspectives and Possibilities
Diverse teams have amazing potential for innovation and creative thinking. Navigating how to achieve this is challenging, but can be facilitated through co-creating working agreements and developing and inclusive leadership practices that achieve a culture of respect, listening and understanding. Through this, our virtual global teams can truly achieve their potential can be realized.

[1] Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business. Public Affairs, 2014.
[2] Gundling, Ernest, Cvitkovich, Karen et al. What Is Global Leadership?: 10 Key Behaviors That Define Great Global Leaders. Nicholas Brealey Pub., 2011.

This piece was originally published by Karen Cvitkovich/Mosaic Global Solutions