Global Teams: Building the Container

Posted on November 14, 2013

Global Teams: Building the Container

Global Teams: Building the Container

How can we improve the performance of global teams, especially those that are working in a matrix context?  Such teams face many challenges: their members are often widely dispersed, they must rely primarily on virtual communication, and they serve various organizational stakeholders. It is not unusual to hear comments such as the following one from the team leader of a critical company project:

In the early days of our team project there was not a lot of rapport among team participants. In fact, it would be fair to say that we didn’t like each other very much. For me personally, there were several people on the team based in other locations with whom I just seemed to be at odds. I attributed this to their abrasive personalities and stubborn adherence to personal agendas at the expense of the team.

It is helpful to take a closer look at the data on global teams to understand the factors behind this type of comment. Over the course of the past ten years, Aperian Global has gathered survey results from 2,240 teams and a total of nearly 17,000 team members from all over the world. This is one of the largest available sources of data anywhere regarding the performance challenges encountered by global teams. The 42-item survey used to collect this data has shown strong results for reliability and validity based on several statistical analyses.

Survey Results
Items consistently rated at the top end of the 42-item scale indicate that global team participants consider themselves to be relatively skilled at virtual communication methods and communicating with remote team members.  They also give high marks to themselves for refraining from negative judgments based on overt differences in culture and language, and to team leaders for gaining participant support and bringing team members into meeting discussions.

The five top-ranking items across this very large set of responses are:

Five highest-rated survey items (“Strongly Agreed”):

  1. Team members effectively use email, voicemail, and other virtual methods of communication.
  2. Team members are able to communicate with team members in distant locations.
  3. Team members avoid making negative judgments about other members because of cultural and language differences.
  4. Team members support and cooperate with the team leader.
  5. The team leader or facilitator ensures that everyone has a chance to contribute during team meetings.

In contrast, the items rated the lowest by survey respondents focus on systemic issues such as rewards, metrics, problem-solving, and collaboration with other parts of the organization.  They also suggest that teams can easily become overly reliant on virtual communication and lack an effective balance of virtual and face-to-face contacts.

Five lowest-rated survey items (“Strongly Disagreed”):

  1. The team’s reward system encourages cooperation and shared effort among team members.
  2. The team receives the resources and cooperation it needs from other parts of the company.
  3. The team has accurate and objective metrics in place to measure the results of its work.
  4. The team effectively combines face-to-face interactions with virtual communication.
  5. The team has an effective procedure for resolving problems among team members.

The global team leader cited previously provides additional insights about the nature of his team’s challenges that help to illuminate the survey results cited above:

We finally met face-to-face and began to more carefully analyze the chronic conflicts that were getting in the way of achieving our objectives. We discovered that negative behaviors we had previously attributed to other team members—being unreliable, untrustworthy, or just unfriendly—were not a matter of personal character or lack of good will, but rather the product of many forces that tended to pull team members apart. The members of our team, who each have their own place within a matrix organization composed of various geographies and business units, were being drawn in conflicting directions by the demands of different stakeholders, reporting relationships, and metrics. When we began to look at these systemic issues more closely, we realized that most of our conflicts were due to such underlying causes. Soon we actually started to like each other! Today we have much stronger relationships and work together more effectively as a team. 

Both the survey results and common anecdotes such as this one suggest that global team leaders need to pay special attention to creating a sound “container” in which the efforts of team members are aligned. Even a shared vision and business objectives are still not sufficient if collaboration among team members is regularly undermined by friction between key stakeholder demands. A team with clashing reward systems or metrics that also lacks a common method for handling problems is likely to encounter many obstacles to achieving its performance goals.  Ingrained habits, whether process-driven or products of organizational or national cultures, tend to be most tenacious and reflexive when conflicts occur.  The more complex and matrixed the team structure, the more critical these topics become.

All global team members need to be very clear about questions such as which regions or customers have priority, how much time they should devote to the team, whom they can draw upon from outside of the team for support, and how they will ultimately be measured and rewarded. Even for teams that are highly skilled in virtual communication techniques, meeting in person, particularly at the outset of the team effort, can be useful in building personal relationships, developing a shared understanding of diverse stakeholders, and building an aligned set of team processes.

Wise team leaders will ensure that their global team participants are comfortable using an array of virtual communication technologies, and open to contributions by culturally diverse team members. Beyond these foundational capabilities, however, they will also ensure that the team is set up for success with carefully aligned core systems and processes that encourage every participant to move in the same direction.

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