It's obvious that global communications are hard. What's not as obvious is what strategies you can use to communicate globally.
I ran a team once that spanned several countries, about 10 time zone hours, and multiple cultural backgrounds. There were some good results, but I say, without a doubt, I was shockingly unprepared to support this global team. I have learned a few things since then. In this post, we are going to focus on global communications, the first step in working with global and culturally diverse teams.
Let's start with the research about what is successful, as there are a number of strong studies addressing multicultural communications. Henttonen and Blomqvist (2005) conducted a study that indicated globalized team success often relied on more personalized communication, proactive and meaningful information distribution, willingness to communicate, and demonstration of learning to solve work tasks. Committing to significant team decisions was easier, according to respondents, when regular communications and demonstrations of shared understanding supported the need for a commitment. The authors found that barriers to trust development included lack of communication, inability to reach leaders for responses to questions, and the failure of leaders to provide information when it was needed.
Here's the catch, though: multiple cultures mean there are multiple approaches to solving problems and communicating. This phenomenon of disconnection between cultures is called cultural misalignment. When leaders expect their cues and leadership behaviors to translate perfectly into others' work framework, trust is eroded because the employees don't quite know what to expect. After all, their expectations are set by their own culture. Remembering to think in the perspective of the other culture is an important reminder for any leader, but the need for effective communication exists in every team, virtual or not. Cultural misalignments can occur when team members cross time zones and continental borders, resulting in conflicts or communication gaps (Cavanaugh et al., 2014, Galvin et al, 2014; Morgan et al., 2014; Snyder, 2012).
Another challenge for the cross-cultural leader? Technology. Communication across cultures may be difficult, but the challenge of communicating effectively may be intensified when technology is framing and packaging information before delivering a message to a receiver. Technology-moderated communication acts as a magnifying glass, emphasizing both good and bad communications strategies.
An Effective Process
So, what's a leader to do? How do you quickly and effectively choose some approaches that will make a positive impact on your team, wherever they are? I highly recommend speaking with trusted team members in each region where you have employees, and use the following questions to start framing your communications. Use video where possible, as you may be able to assess the "genuine-ness" of the responses where you may not be able to do so in email.
- Reach for the Calendar. When is the next bank holiday in Dubai? What days in Ireland are half-day schedules in the summer? Is there a festival in Hong Kong that you need to plan around? Should you send a special message to a team in India or Singapore for Duwali? Search online for localized calendars, and then confirm work habits around major events.
- What days of the week are best for project meetings? When I worked in other countries, I quickly realized that my expectations of the work week were not shared by all of my colleagues. Some basically used Fridays to build social networks and were rarely productive on project tasks. Other groups (Switzerland team, I'm looking at you!) did their best work after 3:00PM.
- What is the best strategy for establishing project goals? Does the team work best if you, as the leader, break the projects into small pieces for them, or giving the overarching goals and then collaboratively developing project plan? Lojeski & Reilly (2009) suggest considering developing an effective contextual approach for communicating project expectations, and then reusing that context in future settings.
- Keep good notes. This is often a challenge with a fast-paced work environment, but if you are having conference calls with team members before or after your regular work hours, your notes can keep you from missing things that you might have missed.
- Communicate clearly and effectively. Easier said than done, if you are also communicating across languages, practice clarity in your language. Using short sentences, eliminating metaphors, and emphasizing expectations will help make your message more digestible to your team members. (If you really want my opinion, this is just good communication in a business setting with everyone).
The Results and Better Listening Habits
Communication often depends on knowing your audience. In this case, the audience is your employees. Understanding your employees' expectations will not only make you a more trustworthy leader, but it will also help you develop solid skills that can be used for teams in other global settings.
Want to know more about managing a global workforce? I can recommend the following book by Karen Lojeski, who authored Leading the Virtual Workforce: How Great Leaders Transform Organizations in the 21st Century. I especially liked Chapter 4, on cultivating communities. The following link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com.
Cavanaugh, K., Sabatini Fraone, J., & Kacher, K. (2014). National Workplace Flexibility Study. Boston, MA: Life Meets Work, Career Life Alliance, and Boston College Center for Work & Family Publications.
Galvin, T., Gibbs, M., Sullivan, J., & Williams, C. (2014). Leadership competencies of project managers: An empirical study of emotional, intellectual, and managerial dimensions. Journal of Economic Development, Management, I T, Finance, and Marketing, 6(1), 35-60. Retrieved from http://www.gsmi-ijgb.com/Pages/JEDMITFMEditorialBoard.aspx
Henttonen, K., & Blomgvist, K. (2005). Managing distance in a global virtual team: The evolution of trust through technology-mediated relational communication. Strategic Change, 14(2), 107-119. doi:10.1002/jsc.714
Morgan, L., Paucar-Caceres, A., & Wright, G. (2014). Leading effective global virtual teams: The consequences of methods of communication. Systemic Practice & Action Research, 27, 607-624. doi:10.1007/s11213-014-9315-2
Snyder, K. (2012). Enhancing telework: A guide to virtual leadership. The Public Manager, 41(1), 11-14. Retrieved from https://www.td.org/Publications/Magazines/The-Public-Manager