Churchill Coach Heike
June 24, 2020
Leading a Virtual Cross-Cultural Team
How does culture show up in virtual teams?
Many of the executives we coach lead international teams. For many of these teams, virtual working has been the norm for years, for other previously co-located ones it is the new normal. Given the unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in now due to the Corona crisis, many members of these teams might be suffering from anxiety or stress, they might be overworked or worried about their jobs. In times like these, we tend to revert to patterns of behavior we have learned early in life and which can take us back to our first cultural influences. Under normal circumstances we might be global professionals, fluent in several languages, and comfortable with international ways of working but when the pressure mounts our original culture and associated behaviors and expectations come to the fore.
Discomfort and misunderstandings
During an executive coaching session, the client describes his international team as unsettled. He is not really sure what is going on. He talks about personality clashes, a lack of cooperation, and a breakdown of trust. How can he bring them together and turn them into a successful team where everybody contributes and thrives? His team members come from different parts of the world – the US, South-America, Europe, and Asia.
Here are some of his observations: One of his team members sends WhatsApp messages to the whole team at 10 pm at night and expects an answer. He questions his team members’ commitment when they ignore him. Others object to this and see it as an infringement of their private time. They have pretty much stopped talking to each other.
When the manager tries to check in with everybody at the beginning of a virtual meeting to see how they are coping with the uncertainties of the Corona crisis some are very reluctant to share their private thoughts and would rather just get down to business. Another team member broke down crying, which others found embarrassing and unprofessional.
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While some team members would like to brainstorm new solutions for the uncertain future ahead others are continually pushing for concrete actions. They keep asking: “So what have we decided now? Do we have any data for that? What is the long-term prognosis?”
The level of direction and leadership they require from him varies even more than under normal circumstances. Reactions range from “Leave that with me …” to “so what exactly do you want me to do about this detail?”.
Some team members talk even more than usual, constantly interrupting others or commenting in the background. Others have withdrawn into their shells. He describes how one of the quieter team members eventually addressed the whole team: “In your culture, you talk, even when you have nothing to say. In my culture, we only speak when we have something to say.”
The manager is struggling to make sense of all this …
Reconciling different cultural preferences
There might be a whole range of different explanations for these behaviors. But if coaches disregard the topic of culture they might be missing out on important insights. Asking a question such as “Do you think that cultural preferences might play a role here?” could open up new perspectives.
Intercultural research shows a wide range of preferences across different countries when it comes to factors such as relationship focus, privacy, leadership styles, level of empowerment, and need for direction or communication style. Research has also shown that international teams can outperform homogenous teams and that the benefits of cultural diversity are manifold.
A successful manager of international teams will, together with his team, reconcile different preferences and shape a team culture in which everyone feels safe and appreciated. Creating a team charter that does not ignore cultural preferences can be extremely helpful. A sense of belonging and ownership is crucial. Promoting awareness around unconscious bias is a further important step. Executive coaching can support this process by not shying away from culture but exploring the many exciting possibilities it opens up.
If you are looking for supporting your cross-cultural virtual teams, Churchill offers Executive Coaching and Team Coaching programs to accelerate results. Ready to start the conversation? Contact us for more information.
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Heike Saxer-Taylor is an Executive Coach based in the UK. She has worked across a wide range of industries, from automotive through to fashion, and at all levels of a company hierarchy, from Future Leaders through to board level. One of her areas of focus is supporting executives in international environments. She coaches in German and in English.
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