Welcome! My name is Joost Thissen and I am an Interculturalist. Here I share columns and insights for those of us who work in culturally diverse and global workplaces.
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Having a sense of relatedness is a must for effective information sharing in global teams, and cultural factors can negatively affect different preferences and expectations of team members.
It might come as a surprising finding that many companies are unaware when their global teams are underperforming. Despite often significant investment to establish such teams, many companies fail to take the time post-establishment to focus on enhancing global team effectiveness and productivity (DeRosa and Lepsinger 2015).
“Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. Working together is success”.
Many organisations simply recycle the same ‘traditional’ processes, guidelines and practices used for co-located teams to global teams. How culturally diverse people in global teams prefer to work, might differ and at the same time, might affect essential work practices such as information sharing, task delegation, and conflict handling. What works in the one culture, can completely miss its target in other cultures.
When it comes to building extraordinary workplaces and high-performing teams, researchers have argued that three psychological needs are essential: relatedness or to feel as though we belong, autonomy or to feel like we’re in charge of our lives, competence or to feel able and that we’ve achieved something. According to Friedman (2021), when professionals are psychological fulfilled, they tend to be healthier, happier, and more productive.
Global team members face a number of additional challenges compared to co-located teams: global team members and managers do not (usually) meet each other in person, they depend on (interrupted) technology-supported communication, they work across time zones, borders, and cultures, they often work on more than one team, and might even report to more than one manager.
To maximise investments in global teams, organisations need to invest in specific processes, guidelines and practices and consider:
The beforementioned psychological factor Relatedness refers to having a sense of belonging: building bonds that are meaningful and fulfilling with other members, connecting on similarities in the way people think, behave, work and socialise. However, relatedness is rather heavily impacted by cultural factors, e.g., cultural differences in how to best build relatedness impacts trust, information sharing, and face-saving considerations. Cultural differences in how to relate to hierarchy and managers, impacts on preferred leadership style, taking accountability, and acceptable response times.
So, let’s explore relatedness a bit more in-depth, as it seems to be a need that is heavily impacted when working globally. We facilitated a virtual global team workshop about ‘Effective Virtual Team Meetings’ with participants from Australia, India, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand. The Australian based manager from the Sydney Head Office had raised a number of issues prior to the training for us to address. In a pre-work questionnaire, we asked participants for example the following question:
“How would you respond if a manager in the Sydney Head Office probed for an update about a project where the progress was not all together positive during the weekly team meeting?”
The comments from the Asian team members included: ‘I wouldn’t respond at all’ … ‘I would only mention the good things’ … ‘I would refer the matter to someone else’. The responses showed that the Asian team members were unlikely to share what was actually going on (and wrong) directly with the manager at Sydney Head Office.
Relatedness is a must for effective information sharing in global teams
What then makes the exchange of information in this case so uncomfortable and challenging for some members? The effective exchange of information is strongly dependent on the relatedness within the team. And this might be influenced by a number of cultural factors:
Responses from Manager and Team Members
At the Head Office in Sydney, the manager argued that building trust to him was based on being responsive, prompt and constructive with feedback, showing commitment, completing a task on time and to take ownership for results. Thus, information sharing is centred around task-based trust. He also voiced that he expected that differences in hierarchical positions should never stand in the way of staff members sharing information on the real status of the project in meetings, especially problems. The behaviour of not at once speaking up when problems arise, would actually decrease the trust in people, as they seem to keep important information behind.
The Asian participants pointed out indicated that trust is built over time, the need to develop informal contacts, to show positive approach and feedback, and show concern for face-saving considerations. Only once a relationship is established, trust can be developed. Thus, information sharing is centred around relationship-based trust. They also indicated that they were not that comfortable to address or speak up directly to managers due to status attached to hierarchical positions. The behaviour of speaking up while in a lower role, would actually decrease trust in people, as you show that you do not know your place in public meetings.
A lack of understanding about how relatedness is developed and maintained in global teams, can result in trust and communication breakdown accompanied by a lack of sharing essential information. This for sure will challenge the performance of global teams. Managers and global team members need to enhance the intercultural knowledge to not only understand where the differences come from, but also practice skills, and develop competence to synergise diverse cultural work preferences in their global teams.
High performing global teams that have fulfilled the need for relatedness which improves the information sharing, overall communication, collaborations, opportunities for synergy, and ultimately the productivity and the bottom-line. Understanding the cultural impact on how we work is therefore an important investment for global team performance.
Joost Thissen, Partner & Interculturalist
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