One part of your team is in Mumbai.  Another is in Munich.  And a third in Minneapolis.  And it's your job to bring them all together into an coherent whole.  But tensions are brewing.  The Mumbai group is frustrated that all calls seem to be arranged according to Minneapolis' schedule -- keeping them up late at night and away from their families. Munich is frustrated with the indirectness of communication -- from both Mumbai and Minneapolis.  And Mumbai feels Munich is rude and demanding. Your team is struggling and it's your job to make it a functioning unit. You just don't know how to make it work -  given the differences and distance.   

There's no denying that global virtual teams have an amazing potential to increase sales, enhance creativity, reach new markets and increase productivity.  But they can also be a cultural and interpersonal minefield -- resulting in cultural conflicts, ongoing disappointment and deep frustrations.    

But it doesn't have to be this way.  Global virtual teams can thrive -- but only if they are managed in a way that leverages their strengths and minimizes their challenges . Based on my experience working with, and researching, global teams and their members over the past 20 years, here are my top 5 tips for making these teams reach their true potential. 

1. Understand the cultural makeup of your team. 

As a leader of a virtual team, especially a global one, you need to diagnose and interpret potential cultural trip wires in the group--areas where cultural differences might get in the way and impact team functioning, and also actively help the team members understand each other's cultures and how best to work together. For example, if your team has three Germans and three Japanese, you might anticipate differences in giving feedback--with the Germans likely more comfortable giving direct, negative feedback and the Japanese less so. 

That said, it's also critical to understand individual personalities as well, because not everyone is typical of the country they come from. For example, it's quite possible you have someone from Japan who has lived and worked in the US and is actually quite comfortable with negative feedback.  And similarly, you might find that a German colleague is less comfortable than the norm in her country.  

2. Give your team a compelling purpose. 

To be effective, especially in a geographically dispersed context, everyone on your team needs to be on the same page. It's also critical to make people feel connected and affiliated to the team, especially in virtual global teams where the "us" vs. "them" dynamic across geographies is so prevalent. And for that reason, it's especially critical to provide the team with a purpose that is clear (specific and measurable), challenging (a stretch, but something attainable, given the resources and personnel), and consequential (the purpose matters and is relevant to all team members). A compelling purpose can be the glue that binds together your team, and pushes everyone in the same direction towards your common goal.

3. Create opportunities for personal bonding. 

Feeling connected to colleagues on the team is critical in any context, but especially critical on teams of people from different cultures and geographies.  As a result, do whatever you can as a leader to provide opportunities for personal bonding. Plan meaningful off-site meetings. Have scheduled, structured personal check-ins at the beginning of your virtual meetings, so that socializing is baked into the team process, instead of feeling superfluous or unnecessary.  Dedicate time to building opportunities for your team members from disparate parts of the global to feel personally connected.  You may not see it immediately, but over time these connections will do wonders for helping the team achieve its goals. 

4. Establish and reinforce team norms. 

Virtual teams often are comprised of people from different cultural background with very different expectations for effective and appropriate communication.  So when all of these people from such disparate backgrounds come together, it's especially critical to establish team norms. For example:  how will your team handle taking turns during virtual meetings?  And is it acceptable during these meetings for participants to multi-task (e.g., do other work while on the call)?  And how critical will it be to create a climate of psychological safety on your team, so that people can take risks without feeling insecure or embarrassed?  And if that is important, how will you create this climate? 

As a leader, it's your job to work with your team to make these calls.  You need to work with your team to create and communicate team norms; find ways to reinforce them among all team members; and manage situations where certain members understand the norms, but struggle to execute them because of cultural differences. 

5. Address negative conflict immediately. 

On a virtual team, conflict is inevitable--and actually especially challenging to manage. Lag times in communication let conflict fester. People can be less restrained in virtual interactions. And critical conversations are more challenging at a distance.  For these reasons, it's critical as a leader for you to not let interpersonal conflict fester.  Be proactive.  Act as a mediator and, when necessary, be ready to have an honest group discussion or confidential side conversations, depending on the situation.

In the end, virtual teams have tremendous potential for operating successfully across cultures and borders - but only if managed thoughtfully by a leader who anticipates challenges and addresses them proactively.  

Published on: Feb 13, 2018