November 10, 2019

Three Principles of Communication for Geographically Dispersed Teams

Keeping a virtual team aligned is challenging. Part of the challenge is the relational distance that comes from people working in different locations and time zones.

People may not have known each other before being thrown together on a project, and relationships develop remotely without much face-to-face contact. Combine that with different cultures coming together, and it can lead to communication miscues.

  • Emails and texts are misunderstood without the context of tone and facial expressions.
  • Second language speakers feel marginalized or left behind when native speakers talk quickly in a teleconference.
  • Teammates away from the home office start to wonder whether they are being given a voice in decisions, and if their contributions are valued.

Below the surface of most dysfunctions on intercultural teams there are break-downs in communication. That is why we have made “overcoming communication barriers” the main objective of our team-building journeys.

We want to share a few principles for communicating with geographically dispersed teammates, giving an intercultural perspective on our own and client’s experiences. The three principles are:

  • Get Personal
  • Shine the Intercultural Spotlight
  • Over-Cheerlead

#1 –Get Personal

People need to know each other well enough to feel they are connecting with a real human being. One way remote teams start this conversation is by creating a virtual dashboard with pictures of team members and a profile of who they are and what they have been involved in.

Do we want to know birthdays? Do we want to acknowledge religious holidays? Do we want to know family situations? In some cultures, for instance, a man may be reluctant to mention the name of his wife. Single women may be reluctant to mention they are single. In other cultures people gladly share this information. Culture plays a big part in answering how much we want to know about each other.

Unstructured time at the beginning of meetings leaves a space for people to chat. Facilitators can lead in small talk that draws out the stories of people in remote locations. If you want to unlock this dynamic in more formal cultures, having someone lead the way is indispensable.

In every culture, connecting people personally and in groups enables a better working relationship, even if it can only happen remotely.

On KnowledgeWorkx-led team journeys, we strongly advocate bringing the “Interpersonal Spotlight” into the discussion. We have clients who use MBTI, Social Styles, and DiSC profiles. This “third voice” helps teammates develop a positive understanding of different personality and behavioral styles.

Knowing teammates’ behavioral profiles helps people adapt to each other. People with a higher relational orientation (I and S profiles in DiSC) will tend to use more personal language in emails – more details about themselves and their lives, and more personal questions. Tuning your communication to match this can give your work together a boost.

On the other hand, D and C profiles have a tendency to be more transactional; businesslike and to the point. Understanding this, and having teammates that understand this, can head off misunderstanding.

We have had D oriented leaders who liked to delegate abruptly. They would tell executive assistants they could do a task “their own way”, and just “have it back on my desk in three weeks.” They thought the freedom was appreciated. They did not realize that their S-oriented teammates were uncomfortable and would have loved more time to ask follow up questions and figure out how to start.

Improving the relationship meant making some extra time to sit down and work out steps. The leaders were surprised to learn they were causing panic; a panic people did not feel free to tell them about it.

Turning on the interpersonal spotlight is one of our first priorities in building a high-performing team. Next we turn to the spotlight on culture.

#2 – Shine the Intercultural Spotlight

We can think of communication in terms of both content – the actual words – and process – how and when we communicate. Culture plays a role in both.

Process involves what technologies and communication tools we choose – teleconferencing with Zoom and FaceTime, phone calls and texting, social media, intermediaries like WhatsApp and Yammer – and also when and how we use them.

Facilitators taking a team through a ‘High-Performing Intercultural Team journey’ open up these conversations with the team so that they can make inter-culturally intelligent choices:

How do we structure meetings? What is expected from people in virtual communications? When do we need face-to-face real-time meetings and when are delayed communications like email better suited?

If we are going to have a weekly team meeting – the way the meeting is structured, how people are asked to prepare for it, and the way we discuss things and make decisions in the meeting are all full of cultural touchpoints.

For instance, if I am sitting in a meeting and my boss asks me a point-blank question, “What do you think about this?” and it is the first time he has asked me that question, the answer that comes out is very likely going to be based on my cultural value system.

Using the spotlight of the Three Colors of Worldview©, for instance, if I am from a more Power/Fear oriented perspective, I will give the answer I feel my boss is going to be pleased with. I will avoid losing power and prestige I already have, and might try to use the opportunity to build my power and influence.

If I am operating from an Innocence/Guilt point of view I will likely engage the question and give my opinion relatively easily.

If I am more Honor/Shame oriented, I might start looking for the answer that is perceived as most honorable – either flowing from my role as a company representative, or in light of other people I am affiliated with.

One powerful application of the Three Colors of Worldview is the Intercultural Litmus Test. Learning to apply this consistently is a key skill for developing cultural agility. We encourage you to explore the tool further through our articles on facilitating with the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.

The way you ask questions and the way you respond to answers have intercultural triggers: positive triggers you want to play into and negative triggers you want to avoid. More of these triggers are captured in the 12 Dimensions of Culture©, a final segment of the Intercultural Spotlight.

As an example of the 12 dimensions, if someone from an indirect communication oriented culture receives a direct request out of the blue, without any subtlety or pleasantries, the tone can easily be misunderstood as aggressive and harsh.

Turning on both spotlights enables you to build trust, build relational and social capital, and communicate team-purpose in ways that work for the makeup of your team.

#3 – Over-Cheerlead

Finally, one of the most important things is how you deal with affirmation. Cheerleading teammates satisfies the Intercultural Litmus Test with flying colors when it honors all involved, empowers, and makes sure credit is given fairly.

Let’s say we have a virtual team teleconferencing regularly. In today’s world they may never actually meet. They may be on a project together for four to six months and then move on to the next virtual project.

The question becomes, in your communication how much time are you going to spend on building relational capital? And how are you going to do that?

The golden rule is that the further you are away from each other geographically and culturally, the more intentionally you need to affirm and acknowledge your teammates’ contributions. That means saying things like, “Last week, when you said this and this, it got me thinking. Your suggestion led to me making some real progress on the problem.”

In your notes record not just what is said but who says it, not just for accountability, but to acknowledge people’s good ideas and contributions. On a dispersed team, we have found you will likely need to feel like you are “over-cheerleading.”

If you as a leader come from a more individualistic culture, you may have to tailor your affirmations to team members from communal cultures – calling out groups and acknowledging leaders as well as individuals. Leaders from a community accountability culture may need to be intentional about singling out individual efforts.

A final important way to affirm team members is to allow them space to voice their opinions in appropriate ways: both in public meetings and in private.

That includes drawing people into discussions who tend not to participate. That can mean privately encouraging native speakers who talk fast to slow down and limit their comments for the sake of second language speakers’ participation.

Good leaders model what they expect from their teams. Set the tone for your team by growing awareness of people’s personality and cultural preferences, and finding ways to affirm people in culturally sensitive ways.

Check out more articles on our KnowledgeWorkx Resource  page.

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