Leading global teams doesn’t have to be difficult, and as with many things it comes down to whether we are focusing on the ‘what’ (obvious cultural, behavioural differences) or the ‘how’ (the ways in which we bridge any gaps). I’ve worked with many diverse groups and teams over the years, many of which span borders. In this time I’ve often heard leaders and their team members lamenting the issues that come with global teams; different languages, time zones and ways of working that all combine to make working together difficult.
Whilst this is may be true, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your challenges are wildly different from other teams; after all, both local and geographically dispersed teams share many of the same factors that impact on team performance; different personalities, conflicting working styles and individual motivations. For businesses located in multi-cultural countries, communication and collaboration issues underpinned by multiple ethnicities, cultures and therefore languages can be as present as those in a team spread over many countries.
Given that the underpinning challenges faced by both local and global teams are shared to a large extent, why is it that cross-cultural challenges are singled out as being ‘the’ issue that prevents cross-border collaboration? Part of the answer lies in the fact that the differences in a global team tend to appear more stark because the geographical dispersion becomes the obvious talking and starting point for perceived differences. It’s the easy answer. Yet, for the many global teams I’ve worked with, I’ve found that basic differences in working styles and personality have contributed to breakdowns in team collaboration as much, if not more than the cultural differences. In these situations, the global nature of the team can be seen as a magnifying glass that artificially distorts the real issues making them appear bigger than they really are.
This isn’t about discounting the challenges that come with teams spread across many countries. We all know there are headaches that come with aligning time zones, language and cultural norms. But what it does do is help to reframe the way we think about, and deal with, the challenges of a global team. If we think something is bigger than it really is, then we are on the back foot from the start. However if we are able to see that the issues we face are not that different from the ‘simpler’ teams we once led then it helps us to make different decisions around how we approach the challenges.
An easy example of this thinking is in the way we build a global team. Just as you would likely do some team building in a regular team, the same goes for a global team. Have the team come together and let them decide 'how' they will work together. Focus on communication style (how we communicate) rather than the difference in language (what we have to say). Openly discuss the challenges of geographical dispersion, and let the team decide the best way to optimise their relationships to overcome the tyranny of distance. Let all members of the team have a voice in the conversations and decisions, allowing the team to immediately experience ‘working’ together.
Focussing on how your team is working together is the path of least resistance when it comes to global leadership. When we focus on the 'what' we are often focusing on the superficial and on difference. For optimal global teaming results, acknowledge the ‘what’s’ whilst you work on the ‘how’.
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