Bridging The Culture Gap In Distributed Teams: Tips From Buffer, Gojek & Gitlab
- As the appetite for innovative products, services and solutions accelerates, diversity of thought is becoming a business necessity
- McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns that exceed their respective industry norms.
- However, workplace diversity in itself does not by itself guarantee greater business success. Leaders will need to work hard to build trust and respect between people of diverse backgrounds in a distributed workforce so as to augment cross cultural communication and collaboration
- It's important to cultivate cultural intelligence or meta-cognition across the workforce. This enables your teammates to pay attention to cultural context in shaping the way they do business – such as an awareness of differences in communication style
- Teams can be better prepared for misunderstandings that arise from cultural gaps if leaders encourage mutual learning between everyone in the company. To this end, GitLab Inc, the platform for developing and collaborating on code, even created a comprehensive Cross-Culture Collaboration Guide for its employees who are based in 45 countries
- Establishing organisational norms that are either culturally neutral or negotiated for the entire team to follow gives employees a framework to follow. Buffer's Code of Conduct has specific guidelines on expected and unacceptable behaviours.
- Identifying employees who can act as "cultural brokers" can be hugely helpful in addressing cross-cultural conflict. Gojek, the Indonesian super-app trains aspiring Gojek programmers and data scientists on navigate cultural differences by giving them the opportunity to work with people of different nationalities during holiday internships
- If leaders take the effort to create a climate that consistently encourages and supports cross-cultural consideration, it will pay off in the long run. The resultant cooperation and cross-cultural creative collaboration can give companies an edge over the competition.
Against the backdrop of aggressive and widespread business disruption, organizations ranging from AbInBev to Zapier are leveraging the advantages of a distributed workforce to boost organizational innovation. The importance of cross cultural teams have of course been long trumpeted, but as the appetite for innovative products, services and solutions accelerates, diversity of thought is becoming a business necessity instead of a lip-service pleasantry.
Harvard Business School professor Roy Y.J. Chua points out the presence of team members from different backgrounds and experiences can stimulate new ideas and approaches to problem solving. "The more your network includes individuals from different cultural backgrounds, the more you will be creatively stimulated by different ideas and perspectives,” Chua comments. "Importantly, these ideas do not necessarily come from the network members who are culturally different from you." And this competitive edge can result in increased profits. McKinsey found that companies in the top quartile for racial and ethnic diversity are 35% more likely to have financial returns that exceed their respective industry norms.
However, workplace diversity in itself does not by itself guarantee greater business success. It's one thing to assemble your cross cultural team, but it is quite another to lay the groundwork – ie an organization's systems and structures – to enable trust and respect between people of diverse backgrounds in a distributed workforce so as to augment communication and collaboration, but at also harness differences to power new approaches and solutions. Here are some key practices recommended for those leading multicultural distributed teams.
Cultivating Cultural Intelligence
Leaders and teams with cultural intelligence or meta-cognition have the ability to pay attention to cultural context in shaping the way to do business, assess and select an appropriate response, and develop strategies for future encounters to improve effectiveness in culturally diverse situations. “I often compare it to the heightened awareness you have when driving in a foreign city where you will pay more attention to the road signs and traffic signs" Chua says describing meta-cognition."It’s this kind of heightened awareness and reflection about what I think about other cultures and how other cultures think about me that helps cross-cultural creative collaboration.”
To illustrate the need for cultural intelligence, take something as simple as a meeting between two team members in different geographical locations – let's say Japan and Brazil – can be fraught with complication. Time is, after all, relative. In Japan, it is important to be on time, or punctual, for an appointment, but in Brazil, flexible punctuality is characteristic of business etiquette. These differing attitudes to punctuality can lead to frustration and misunderstanding, especially if cultural context isn't taken into consideration.
Similarly, communication styles vary from culture to culture, so while Americans prefer direct and frank discussion, Chinese or Indians often prefer information, especially if it’s negative, to be communicated in a more diplomatic manner. These conflicting approaches can have an adverse effect on team relationships, which in turn can negatively impact collaboration and productivity.
Conflicts that arise from intercultural interactions in distributed teams are the result of behaviourisms and communication based on language, culture, assumptions, experience, and expectations. Teams can be better prepared for misunderstandings that arise from cultural gaps if leaders work hard to build cultural awareness across the company, with the following in mind:
- Encourage mutual learning between everyone in the company – to probe differences within the team with curiosity rather than contempt.
- Instruct colleagues to observe both their positive and negative interactions with people, and learn from them.
- By identifying the nuances that exist among cultures and how those differences impact business practice, employees will be equipped with the information and confidence needed to successfully collaborate and conduct business across cultural boundaries. To this end, GitLab Inc, the platform for developing and collaborating on code, even created a comprehensive Cross-Culture Collaboration Guide for its employees who are based in 45 countries
- Run workshops to foster cross cultural team building.
Organisational Ground Rules For Cross Cultural Teams
Establishing organisational norms that are either culturally neutral or negotiated for the entire team to follow gives employees a framework to follow. These protocols or norms clarify performance expectations that supersede cultural idiosyncrasies. Buffer's Code of Conduct has specific guidelines on expected and unacceptable behaviours for everyone on the team to follow.
This is especially critical when team members are working in different geographies and time zones. Leaders can define expectations for timings (how late is too late) or establish a common language for meetings (when to use direct communication and when indirect is better) which is the most convenient for the business to grow. They can also indicate in which cases flexibility is permissible, and set the consequences if rules are not respected.
However, it's equally important for leaders to also keep an eye out for those on the team who might have difficulty in meeting these standards or need additional resources. If, for instance, a leader who wants to hold an all team brainstorming session, but recognizes that some team members can be reticent due to their cultural upbringing, they will need to take extra care to explain the importance of this process, and maybe even run them through some smaller brainstorming exercises to help them become more confident. Leaders can even run an asynchronous text-based group brainstorm via a discussion board. Not only does asynchronous communication tools make complex issues simpler to follow and understand, but it can give the more introverted and diffident members of the team a safe platform to share their opinions.
Even with cultural sensitization, it's inevitable for misunderstandings to occur. To help employees, one way for leaders to address cross-cultural conflict, as stated earlier is to make sure your team is aligned on which tech tools to use to communicate; for instance using asynchronous channels for project discussions between teams with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds can ensure that details and nuances are not lost or misinterpreted.
Identifying employees who can act as "cultural brokers" can be hugely helpful in addressing cross-cultural conflict. Sujin Jang, writing for the Harvard Business Review, describes cultural brokers as "team members who have relatively more multicultural experience than others and who act as a bridge between their monocultural teammates." They help colleagues reach outside their silos to build a rapport, can mediate misunderstandings or disagreements, and be a role model.
Having even one cultural broker in your workforce can go a long way. Based on studies involving more than 2000 global teams, Jang and her colleagues found that diverse teams with at least one member who acted as a cultural broker outperformed teams without one.
For Gojek, the Indonesian super-app, putting this into practice starts as early as their holiday internship programs. The company trains aspiring programmers and data scientists through GoSquads, with many of the graduates returning to work at Gojek, the Jakarta Post reports. One of the benefits of the programs is that interns are able to work with people of different nationalities, including Indians, Singaporeans, South Africans and Ukrainians. This gives them the opportunity to learn how to navigate cultural differences.
Accept Some Business Inefficiency As Functional
Cross cultural management can be difficult. Multicultural distributed teams need time and support to learn relevant cultural knowledge, and become more adept at understanding and dealing with differences among cultures. Fostering sensitivity and empathy requires a lot of patience.
The good news: this will pay off.
In terms of the Tuckman model, once teams put in the required effort in learning about each other and their differences, it will result in higher performance. With distributed teams, this means that more mindful interactions can foster trust which in turn makes collaboration more effective. Employees are more willing to share new ideas with open-minded teammates in a "psychologically safe environment", which in turn can fuel outside-the-box thinking.
Managing cross cultural teams can bring their companies unparalleled levels of productivity and creativity, but only if leaders lay the groundwork for employees to work together across different cultural and logistical divides.
Team members need opportunities to learn about the business cultures of each individual members' countries, evidence of the benefits, and recognition of positive outcomes to steadily work towards intercultural team competence. This is easier said than done. But if leaders take the effort to create a climate that consistently encourages and supports cross-cultural consideration, it can ultimately become intuitive. And the resultant cooperation and cross-cultural creative collaboration can give companies an edge over the competition.
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Image credit: Warwick Business School