Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Diversity in a digital world

Major cross-border business transactions have been jeopardized because of language and communication difficulties, with direct financial impact.

One European outsourcing firm we’ve worked with shared that there’s a tendency for people to call up and involve those they are comfortable with and speak the same language as, rather than reach out to those that would be most beneficial to get the job done.

Perceived ‘rudeness’ through being too direct is often caused by a lack of vocabulary in a business language that is not our own.  Native English speakers have a tremendous responsibility to ensure that they choose a form of language that is easy for non-native English speakers to understand, especially when working virtually.

As well as language issues, as companies become more and more global and connected, it’s increasingly likely that our teams, communities and networks are full of diverse cultures.  This is as well as the different working cultures between functions and organizations. And this can pose a challenge for our virtual community building.

Research suggests that adopting a ‘global mindset’ that fits with the overall values of the company, rather than adopting one specific set of cultural norms over another, works best. That way we can benefit from, rather than erase, the diversity within the team.

This includes acknowledging potential differences in communication style, from levels of directness to dealing with hierarchy – and agreeing what the team deems acceptable. According to Amit Mukherjee, Professor of Leadership and Strategy in Singapore, each team norm we agree on needs to stand up to the following two litmus tests:

  1. Will this hurt or help us in a digital world?
  2. Will this bind us together?

Within the technology norms you’ve agreed as a group, aim to become more ‘digitally mindful’ of how each person in your team prefers to be communicated with (Webex, email, skype chat, old fashioned phone call).  Be pro-active about sharing your preferences with your team too. As well as individual preferences, there is evidence[1] to suggest that some cultures (e.g. Brazil) prefer richer technology-mediated communication such as videoconferencing, while others (eg. USA) prefer less intense channels such as e-mail and chat.  Always best to ask rather than assume.

As time goes on, Harvard Business Review recommends that team members are active cultural learners and teachers to understand one another’s identity and avoid misinterpreting behaviors.

So take a moment to re-read any emails, chat messages or documents that you write this week that will be seen by non-native English speakers and look out for any words that might be harder to understand. As we’ve seen, it pays to be clear.

[1]Duranti, C. M., & de Almeida, F. C. 2012. Is more technology better for communication in international virtual teams? International Journal of e-Collaboration, 8: 36-52.

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