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A software professional with a passion for people excellence, process efficiency and product innovation. I like to learn ideas from other fields and blend them to see how they can benefit software development. Tathagat is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 13 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

How Do You Manage Intercultural Issues in Your Teams?

02.27.2013
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I recently had the good fortune to fly in from Doha to Dubai in a Dreamliner, and later again from Bangalore to Delhi – before they got grounded following a safety advisory. No doubt, it is a marvel of engineering excellence, and I am sure they will figure out battery problems sooner than later.

However, while reading this article “From the Start, Dreamliner jet program was doomed”, I could not help express surprise over some of the issues discussed. While some of the issues reflect a very high-end of engineering being tried out for the first time, and hence some teething troubles could be expected that could be solved by engineering, some other relate to the human aspects, surely not happening for the first time, which perhaps trumped several other issues:

It seemed like the Italians only worked three days a week. They were always on vacation. And the Japanese, they worked six days a week,” said Jack Al-Kahwati, a former Boeing structural weight engineer.

Even simple conversations between Boeing employees and those from the suppliers working in-house in Everett weren’t so simple. Because of government regulations controlling the export of defense-related technology, any talks with international suppliers had to take place in designated conference rooms. Each country had its own, separate space for conversations.

There were also deep fears, especially among veteran Boeing workers, that “we were giving up all of our trade secrets to the Japanese and that they would be our competition in 10 years,” Al-Kahwati said.

None of these are new issues to any student of inter-cultural issues, especially in project management, but what is surprising is that for a program of that strategic importance and such magnitude, these issues were ignored and they eventually came back to bite.

Distributed and virtual teams are a reality of today’s world. It is not just limited to well-heeled MNCs – we see countless everyday examples of such teams with NGOs, startups, voluntary efforts, college project and so on. There is more to working with people from different time zones and cultural contexts than we realize. Problem is, most of us haven’t been exposed to, or adequately trained to handle such diverse teams – not just as a manager but even as a team member. As a result, when there is a need to work with distributed teams, we tend to curl up in our cocoons and shun working with them. It could be due to excessive paranoia due to job insecurity, or it could be due to prejudiced mindset about folks who are ‘out of sight’, especially at a low-cost destination. Sometimes, it might simply be due to sheer laziness. I have once been in a situation where a VP based out of company headquarters wanted to only work with people within his ‘line of sight’ – he hated getting on emails, hardly ever responded to them, and his preferred style was chatting in hallways or at cubicles. Sounds familiar? However effective this strategy might be for his immediate team within a shouting distance, this would lead to his remote teams feeling disenchanted. You might be a great leader, but remember – managing remote teams is also part of your success!

Panel discussion on "Intercultural Issues in Project Management" at Grace Hopper Conference, India, 2012In Dec, I had the opportunity to participate in an interesting discussion at the Grace Hopper Conference, India on “Cultural Intelligence in Project Management”. We discussed some of the personal experiences of a very diverse and highly experienced panel. Some of these experiences ranged from Bangladesh to China, Japan to Israel, and US to Europe and so on.

One of the points I shared was about how to manage inter-cultural teams. This is a big topic and we can spend a day on it and still don’t get it right! In my experience, there is a process that I have developed and refined that works well. Here is how it goes:

  1. Be aware of the intercultural differences - don’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. This is especially important for ‘foreigners’ in your team lest they start considering them as ‘aliens’ in the team! To me, recognition of such differences means respect and that itself is such a motivation for everyone to feel welcomed in a diverse group. In a Chinese company I once worked for, it was common for everyone to be in office till 9pm everyday, 6 days a week, even if there was no work that demanded people to stay back. Meetings would be setup at 5pm and go on until 9pm and beyond. While this was ok for many of the Chinese folks as they were ‘foreigners’ to Bangalore and had nothing better to do in evenings than work at office, this was not so ok for many Indian engineers who had a family. While no one minds occasionally staying staying for work exigencies but everyday was a drain. In that high-performing culture, leaving early for home would be seen as a sign of lesser commitment and effort. While things did eventually get better (at least in my team because I summarily rejected such outrageous ways of ‘measuring’ performance of an individual), it took some time and great efforts to make people realise their intercultural differences that we have grown so subconsciously used to.

  2. Creating common norms - Instead of forcing one set of people to change to another set of people’s preferred way of working, it is much better to arrive at a common way of working, even if that is not the most efficient way of working. Ideally, let the team evolve such norms so that there is a higher buy-in for those common standards of mutual behavior. This will demonstrate tremendous respect for individuals and encourage them to participate in team proceedings that will go a long way in building their individual buy-in and a team camarederie that will set the team on a high-performance trajectory. More than once in my career, I have been involved with diverse teams where simple things like how fast an email should be responded to has been subject of intense debate. We all have different ways to answer them. Some would take the old analogy of a telephone call – just like someone who is physically present is more important than the one calling on phone at their leisure, why should someone sending an email become a priority for me? On the other hand, there are folks who would want to respond to emails within a hour if not minutes! So, what is the best way? Clearly not making everyone answer the mails in one hour, I hope! Let the team discuss this issue and let them come out with common norms such as 24hrs or 48hrs based on what is important for the business. As manager, step in only when you think teams are setting the bar too low, and then also, step in not to dictate your preferred ‘norm’ but to clarify the objectives and provide supporting data and steer the conversation towards why it is important to meet those objectives – teams are smart, they will figure out the rest. For example, if time tracking is a project requirement (either for tracking project effort or for billing the client, or for any other reason), and given people’s propensity to either avoid it completely or do very meticulous time tracking, then it might be a good idea to also identify a common tool, such as High Line Time Management tool, that makes sure everyone is on the same page.

  3. Exploit intercultural strengths based on individual strengths - the idea is not to make a rabbit fly or to make a bird swim, but find out who is naturally adept at certain strengths and match their tasks to their strengths. As managers, we don’t want to be parents to the team members, and there is no point ‘forcing’ them to change them to do thing that they don’t relate to (unless of course, that is jeopardizing project objectives). Instead of doing a command and control style management of allocating tasks, managers should walk a few extra steps and undertand what motivates their team members, and if possible, assign them that work. In most cases, that might be a strength they already posses, and in some cases, it might a skill they aspire to possess and might not be the best candidate for it. However, if they can demonstrate that they have taken steps to match their desire to improve their capability in that subject, then as managers, we owe it to them to give them a fair chance. Assigning a mentor as they take up a new task might also be helpful. I once had a great team member who was majorly motivated by helping everyone on the team. Almost each evening as people were winding up their work, he would go to them and chat up with them on their problems and offer voluntary help to stay late and fix it. He would do it in such unintimidating and affable manner that other team members loved it (and I can’t recollect anyone misusing that gesture of benevolence, in case you are wondering). As his manager, the only thing I was supposed to do was just to stay out of the way and cheer him up! He was clearly driven by his own deep passion for the product that we were working on.

  4. Broadbase core strengths - finally, once the team has come to the point where people don’t feel intimated or vulnerable due to their shortcomings but rather feel appreciated for their strengths, it will be much easier to cross-pollinate those strengths among the team members. Since everyone is a mentor and everyone is a ‘mentee’ to someone else at this point, chances are that this won’t create adversarial relations among the team members, but actually stimulate a culture of mutual respect and learning.For example, someone might be an expert with a technology and another team member is great at planning. Once there is a feeling of mutual respect, it will be much easier to make them seek each other’s expertize in furthering their own knowledge.

This four-step process has served me well in multiple scenarios. There is nothing hard about it, rather it is based on simple laws of respect to everyone, and that’s why it works. And to me, intercultural is just that – a matter of respecting people for what they are rather than ignoring or ridiculing them for what they are not. After all, we are all perfectly imperfect and similarly different!

How do you manage intercultural issues in your teams?

Published at DZone with permission of Tathagat Varma, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

Comments

Patrick Flood replied on Wed, 2013/02/27 - 6:12pm

 I research the country/culture of my colleages if I find I am not clicking with them. Western countries tend to have low power distance indexes (bosses are accessible) and high individuality (employees take initiative). Eastern and South American countries tend to have high power distance indexes (bosses have more power) and high collectivity (more structure and team orientation). The following link has gotten me out of a couple of cultural binds in the workplace (and on vacation)

http://geert-hofstede.com/countries.html

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