Advances in technology have allowed for a growth in the use of multinational and culturally diverse teams, with 65 percent of employees reporting working over virtual interfaces to tackle complex projects together, according to a 2017 survey of 1,000 business employees. Virtual platforms facilitate the diversity of perspectives and talents across countries, opening the doors for companies to reap the increased problem-solving abilities and creative potential of diverse teams in a highly cost-effective manner.
Inevitably, however, working in a global setting—particularly across virtual interfaces—leads to cross-cultural conflicts. In these contexts, easily quantifiable measurements have no bearing on the types of interventions necessary for resolving such frictions and helping global teams to perform optimally. What matters much more are the personalized strategies and artful hacks that key leaders on multinational teams can perform to capitalize on the diversity of strengths and optimize productivity for their teams. Such strategies can only come about as a result of in-depth qualitative assessments conducted by trained social-science researchers.
While individuals working on multinational teams report the existence of cross-cultural conflicts, there is difficulty in articulating the precise nature of the problem and the root causes of the tensions that team members experience. Consider the case of a team of experts from the United States and Hong Kong who are working virtually to develop a proposal for a new learning center in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The Americans expressed frustration that their Chinese counterparts were not participating fully in their online conferences and were contributing less to the project than expected given their higher level of experience and expertise in the Cambodian context.
On the other hand, the Hong Kong team felt that their input and ideas were being steamrolled by an American-led process in which they did not feel heard or valued. Within this context, both sides felt at a loss as to how to even articulate the problem, let alone ease tensions, promote collaboration, and foster a virtual team environment in which both sides felt fully engaged.
Given the highly complex and contextual nature of the problem, a human lens was necessary to tease apart and diagnose the root causes of friction to reach an effective solution for this team. Routine assessments failed in this context because they failed to account for the dynamism, subtlety, and momentary nature of interactions among individuals which, taken together, work to negatively affect team outcomes. In the case of these teams, qualitative assessments through observations, interviews, and focused discussions allowed expert researchers to tease apart the barriers to the Chinese experts’ full participation in team discussions, facilitating the development of a process that engaged everyone in more productive and fruitful virtual team meetings.
Resolving the issues plaguing satisfaction and productivity on this virtual team involved an acknowledgement of the dynamics at play when fast-paced discussions were led in English—a second language—for the Hong Kong–based team members. It also called for raising awareness of cultural cues guiding group interactions, including the signaling of abstract cues such as permission to speak. The new team process looked only subtly different but resulted in an invigorated and more involved presence from the Hong-Kongers as well as an increase in satisfaction on the part of the Americans, who felt that their engaged partners had come to pull their weight in the project.
Ultimately, qualitative approaches driven by the latest research in fields such as leadership and organizational behavior allowed for the study of a complex human phenomena, leading to innovative and lasting solutions. Bringing in researchers trained in social sciences such as leadership theory, organizational theory, anthropology, sociology, and business is benefitting virtual global teams in key ways.
Applying a more-human lens to business interactions is moving us beyond the generic and abstracted conclusions driven by quantitative assessments of human behavior and toward deep, dynamic insights that lead to innovative, contextually appropriate solutions. Connecting companies to the latest research into human behavior and cross-cultural dynamics thus allows for insights that can lead to incisive interventions and better business outcomes.
Managers open to exploring the potential of these social science applications in business will find themselves better able to harness the full potential of their diverse global talent, leading to increased creative output and productivity as well as more satisfied and engaged team members.