I’m sure you have been on the receiving end of a botched attempt of getting two teams in distant locations to work in harmony. You may have even attempted it yourself. The good news is that as humans we are hardwired to struggle in these situations, so don’t be too hard on yourself. The bad news is that it’s pretty difficult to overcome…
As globalisation has increased the need to integrate international teams has also increased. However, humans do not naturally find cross cultural integration easy, not least when we have to do so via modern communication technology and when located thousands of miles from one another. This article combines a couple of popular theories to explain why we find this so tricky, and offers some advice on how you might be able to overcome such a hurdle.
The Triangle of Trouble…
CULTURE: First off, let’s not underestimate how a person’s background affects their social norms. One culture’s polite is another’s rude, and what may be considered friendly in one culture may be considered disrespectful in another. Dutch and Russians are renowned for being direct in their communication, but also appreciate the honesty of direct feedback from others. On the other hand Chinese and Japanese are notoriously unobtrusive with their feedback, but are intuitive enough to be able to read another’s subtle body language to observe their opinions. Where does your social norm fit in with the culture that you are communicating with? If you don’t know then you may be offending them even as you feel you are rolling out the charm offensive.
AWARENESS: This is a simple appreciation that we humans have an incredible propensity to think that anything in which we don’t know the detail is far simpler than it actually is. Once again I’m sure you are all familiar with having to complete a task that is far more complex than those asking for its completion can comprehend. A common example is the introduction of a new software that promises to fix a set of business problems. What usually happens is that the software introduction makes the problems worse; once the software is installed people stop trying to work in such a way to mitigate the old problems, thinking that the software has taken away this need. In reality the software will need to be built carefully into existing processes in order to improve them.
Outsourcing and cross culture working is very similar to installing software. If a business is considering outsourcing something or collaborating with a distant team, then it’s likely that the their current state of operations is not satisfactory. But throwing problems over to a third party and expecting them to intuitively know how (or indeed want) to solve your problems is not realistic. When this utopian and low maintenance solution turns out to not be more of a problem than a solution, then who’s fault is it, yours or theirs?
EMPATHY: This is perhaps the biggest barrier to successful integration, and is an effect of cultural divisions and a lack of awareness. We as humans tend to be emotionally switched off to those that are either culturally different to us or geographically distant. When we are talking down the phone to someone who we can barely understand, who seems starkly dissimilar to us and other people we know, and is thousands of miles away, then we tend to diminish their importance and relevance. Naturally we will see our opinions as more insightful than theirs, unfortunately they will be thinking the same thing about us.
…Knowing that you are not alone with your international integration problems is comforting up to a point, but how do you overcome these problems? Being aware of how difficult successful integration can be is the first step; and in cases where team integration over the short term is critical, or if you are not committed for the long haul, it is probably safer to keep within the same team. This will not always be possible or practical, and where integration is necessary, knocking down the three pillars of the triangle of trouble will be key. How do you increase the empathy between the two teams? Increasing their awareness of one another, and creating an appreciation of one another’s cultural norms, while also sharing some common ground.
In my personal experience this is best (and most time efficiently) solved through face to face contact. An exchange programme on a rotation basis is a good option; relocating team members for a set period of time. The team members who are relocated are also best placed to act as a communication bridge between their new team and their familiar team back home. They will know how their original team think and work, and so communication with them will be more effective. Also necessary is educating each team of the other’s cultures and behaviors, perhaps even some history lessons. If intuitively you feel that the these actions will not help, then it’s likely that the integration period will be all the more difficult. But in any case, over time the two teams should grow to know one another better, and will eventually start to work as one.
Achieving success is no easy task, and productivity may initially fall before it begins to rise, but this is not surprising when you consider the forces against. The most important factor is the simple realisation of how difficult the integration process can be; if you fail to take this issue seriously then you will likely be throwing away valuable time and resources, at the expense of productivity and the morale of your team members.