In an increasingly globalized world, more and more of us work on teams distributed around the world and connected by technology. Such teams benefit from local knowledge and a variety of viewpoints, but they can face cultural, psychological, and practical pitfalls that don’t come up when collaborators are all in one room.
Here are some of the takeaways from Yale SOM’s new core course, Global Virtual Teams, which debuted in mid-January.
- Build a collective identity. Establishing trust is key to building a strong team, but the idea of trust itself is one that frequently carries different connotations across cultures. Building trust can be even more difficult when teams only meet virtually, so teams should work to create a shared, singular vision of their objectives. Such a vision can help avoid an “us-versus-them” mentality or a situation in which one part of a team dictates orders to others. Teams need to take steps to avoid “in-group bias,” according to Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, resisting the tendency to favor colleagues who are closer geographically.
- Accept vulnerabilities. Creating trust on virtual teams requires giving up complete control. Successful teams accept the risk that comes with trusting virtual teammates. In one exercise during Global Virtual Teams, students were given a team project to complete, communicating only through virtual means like video conferences, conference calls, texts, or emails. The catch? Groups of students were given different instructions on how to finish the project, but could not share the documents they had received. Instead, they were forced to trust their teammates’ interpretations. “The second you don’t trust your team or think that they don’t have your or your group’s best interests in mind with respect to their conduct, people tend to take a collective step back,” Wrzesniewski says. “It’s no longer a group that functions as tightly as it could.”
- Avoid a focus on common knowledge. Many groups spend the majority of time in meetings building consensus on what they have in common: goals, objectives, and previously shared information. This dynamic is even more powerful in virtual teams. The more they focus on consensus building, Wrzesniewski says, the less they have time to benefit from the unique information and skills that individuals bring to the organization. “You concentrate on and circle around the information that everyone already knows,” she says. “Once you realize there is other information that others in the group have that you may not, you need to share it. That’s why global virtual teams come together: to bring together that unique information. You’re bringing information on a particular client that [the team] doesn’t know, and they’re going to need that information in order to deal with that client.”
- Don’t make assumptions. The most effective global teams resist the tendency to make cultural assumptions. In one exercise, students divided into two teams were tasked with building a device. The issue? One team was working in Imperial measurements and the other was using the metric system. Checking assumptions and learning about the different systems in use was a key to building a successful device. “We are products of our own cultures and so much of the time, we operate on our own assumptions,” says Professor Michael Kraus. “How we think we make decisions is not often how others make decisions. That’s not an assumption you can make, particularly when working cross-culturally.”
- When a problem arises, evaluate communication first. When virtual teams run into problems, we have a tendency to blame individual performance. But managers of virtual teams should start by asking, is communication clear between all team members across continents? Could something be misinterpreted and cause a system-wide issue? More often, the issue is one of technology and communication, Wrzesniewski says. “You’re trying to work across cultural differences and, often, asynchronously. There are many, many opportunities for the signal to get lost,” she says. “Part of what happens when even if you introduce a very brief delay in communication, people begin to make attributions as to why that delay is happening. They move much more quickly to attributional explanations for why people are doing what they’re doing that are less situational and more about the person. In technologically mediated situations, people tend to be a bit more abrupt. It’s the perfect storm: you’re more likely to misinterpret and what you’re saying back is less filtered.”