By Laura Smith, Vice President of Global HR, Digital Intelligence Systems LLC
A top concern for companies who have extended employment opportunities to global candidates is ensuring that all employees have a basic understanding of some vital cultural differences.
So far, this four-part series on managing geographically dispersed teams has tackled communication guidelines to keep channels open around the globeand the importance of total team inclusion with tips to make it easier. These two important goals—communication and inclusion—are integral parts of successfully executing on the third topic: understanding, respecting, and acting upon the cultural differences that an organization’s dispersed team members represent.
To understand culture, it is important to know exactly what the term means. Culture is a system of values, positions, behaviors, and attitudes that are shared collectively across an organization. In many companies, culture is an unwritten and unspoken “feeling” that fuels how people view coming to work, getting involved in business events, and team interaction. It often does not reflect on a stated set of core company values which define how employees should interact with each other. Ultimately, a company’s culture plays a direct role in new hire recruiting, workplace happiness and productivity, loyalty, and retention.
It is vital that a company’s culture is defined based on company values and that the tone is set from the very top of the leadership team. When done effectively, the desired culture can then permeate the entire organization and positively impact innovation and profitability. Conversely, a culture that doesn’t support transparency, respect, and a fair amount of risk-taking will eventually affect all aspects of work life with an end result of high turnover.
Below are a few points on how to establish a positive, productive culture among team members across all global locations:
Identify Core Company Values
This is where it begins. When a company articulates core values and reinforces them in a variety of ways across all locations, employees are better able to sense a common culture reflecting those values. Leaders must understand what it means to demonstrate behavior consistent with those values. When all employees are held accountable to their company’s values, that’s when magic occurs in the retention, productivity, and profitability arenas.
Empathy is the most important skill of an effective leader and is a key factor in how each interaction among team members is shaped. Empathy is a needed skill for global leaders because it plays into helping everyone understand culturally diverse employees. However, a study released in Februarydetailed that only about 40 percent of leaders are “proficient and/or strong” in the area of empathy.
The appropriate use of empathy doesn’t happen overnight. It is molded to the culture of an organization by the pace at which teams need to produce results. When teams are dispersed and in-person communication is rare, empathy can display itself in the simplest of things: understanding the specific workplace needs of employees in another country; checking in with them regularly about their work/life balance; understanding varying country’s holiday calendars and finding a way to share and relate; and being sensitive to time zone differences. All of these help establish and nurture an empathetic environment that touches employees on a personal level and spawns conversations that demonstrate the importance of individual experiences.
Understand Differences in Hierarchy
In the United States and other western countries, it is a predetermined fact that people are generally seen as equals, resulting in a horizontal society. Everyone is in charge of their own career success and also how they are viewed by those in their communities. Many HR experts and executives have dissolved old fashioned management policies and have led the shift into more “agile” workplaces that include open-door methods, constant dialog, and spur-of-the-moment decisions.
But in many other countries, hierarchy is a comfortable and accepted concept to which many are accustomed. Known as a vertical society, decisions come from the top and are more structured than an impromptu meeting held in a hallway outside a manager’s office. Decisions are made in an official capacity and then rolled out to everyone else.
In this area specifically, it is important for managers to understand how dispersed team members view authority and then cater their style to that view.
Allow Formalities to Set the Stage for Success
How do other cultures greet each other? Are there any western mannerisms that could be seen as offensive or disrespectful in other cultures? What regional differences are there in the concept of “professional dress”?
Business deals have fallen apart because leaders did not study and understand the formalities of a country in which they were doing business. And when it comes to team dynamics, it is always best to understand if any phrases or gestures within American slang are offensive or if there are other aspects of daily culture that could be seen as globally insensitive.
Paying attention to cultural workplace formalities and how they differ from the accustomed to standard is key to global teams working together efficiently and to their fullest potential.
Foster Collaboration Across the Globe
Collaboration is assumed in a lot of the interactions undertaken by western teams. Innovation, likewise, flows freely, whether it is by the water cooler or sitting in a boardroom. But in other countries, hierarchical norms could make it difficult for a global team member to participate in such discussions. That is why it is important for a leader to understand the norms in another country and to draw out the ideas of dispersed employees in a thoughtful and respectful way. Understanding these potential issues can help managers work with these employees to help them feel comfortable in collaborating with others.
There are so many additional attributes that help foster a positive culture among globally dispersed teams. And, as with most successful global endeavors, communication is key. Those companies that invest time in understanding the importance of corporate culture and, by extension, a culture of inclusion will see these efforts pay off not only with worldwide employees, but also with the bottom line.
Learn more about dispersed team management in the following upcoming blog post:
- Topic 4: Structure.Showing consistency and structure by holding weekly meetings individual check-ins and conveying clear expectations and objectives
Laura Smith is the vice president of global human resources for Digital Intelligence Systems, LLC—a global services and staffing firm based in McLean, Va., with more than 33 offices worldwide. Smith has more than 25 years of human resources experience and maintains the HR certifications SPHR and SHRM-SCP. She has also been named to Staffing Industry Analysts’ Global Power Women in StaffingList for the last two years.