Have a Global Team? Here’s How to Make It Work!

Today’s companies, both large and small, can quickly find themselves needing a global workforce in order to succeed. The challenge of uniting and motivating workers separated by language, distance, culture, and time can be daunting. Uniting workers is key, however, to taking advantage of critical skill sets, emerging markets, and local business practices.

In the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, Tsedal Neeley offers a practical framework for making global teams work. Based on her own 15 years of consulting and research, she has developed the “SPLIT framework” with five components: structure, process, language, identity and technology —each of which can be a source of social distance.[i]  Her framework is summarized below. I have added my own first-hand observations and other relevant research.

Structure and the Perception of Power

Team leaders who are physically based in “corporate” need to be conscious of the perception of power and influence that team members in remote locations may assume everyone in corporate has. Remote team members may believe, for example, that their opinions and ideas will not be given equal weight, even when they have critical insights on technology, marketing, local laws and culture. On the other hand, team members from the dominant site may believe they will have to contribute more than team members in remote sites.  It creates a negative dynamic before the team even gets going!

To minimize these perceptions of imbalance, Neeley recommends that team leaders repeatedly emphasize three key messages:

“Who we are” Neeley isn’t referring to the typical aligning of a team to the organization’s strategy, goals and operating norms. Instead, she is referring to developing the team’s “single entity,” even though team members may be very different from one other. She encourages sensitivity and bridge building to create unity. She also advises team leaders to encourage team members to speak openly about their cultures, and to have a zero tolerance for displays of cultural insensitivity.

“What we do” It is important to regularly remind team members of their common purpose, progress and achievement relative to the company’s goals.

“I am here for you” Teams members from remote locations need frequent contact from team leaders. This can be a brief phone call or e-mail to convey that their contributions matter, get their specific input on a critical decision, thank them for their input, or to recognize a birthday or national holiday.

Process and the Importance of Empathy

Empathy helps reduce social distance. I believe that showing empathy is one of the most powerful ways to improve team effectiveness. Because geographically dispersed teams lack regular face time, they are less likely to have a sense of mutual understanding.  To foster more understanding, Neeley recommends that leaders build “deliberate moments” into their virtual meetings. In addition to allowing five to ten minutes for chitchat, team leaders should ask for feedback on routine interactions that may inconvenience a remote team due to differences in time and location.

Leaders should also encourage input on process and decisions, even to the level of purposefully asking for disagreement. Framing meetings as brainstorming opportunities lowers the risk that people will feel pressed to choose between sides and opens up the discussion for more collaboration. It is also important for leaders to solicit every team member’s views, including those members who may have less organizational status.

Language and the Fluency Gap

Good communication among coworkers drives effective knowledge sharing, decision making, coordination, and, ultimately, performance results. But language and fluency differences in global teams are inevitable and can heighten social distance. Neeley has found that teams can mitigate social distance by respecting three rules: dialing down dominance, dialing up engagement, and balancing participation to ensure inclusion. “Strong speakers must agree to slow down their speaking pace and use fewer idioms, slang terms, and esoteric cultural references when addressing the group. They should actively seek confirmation that they’ve been understood, and they should practice active listening by rephrasing other’s statement for clarification or emphasis.”[ii]

Neely’s recommendations are supported by other research as well. An MIT study of the characteristics of the smartest teams discovered, contrary to popular belief, that smarter teams were not based on who had the highest intelligence, as measured by I. Q. tests, the teams with the most extroverts, nor the teams whose members reported being the most motivated to succeed.

Instead, according to the authors, the smartest teams had these characteristics:

  1. Members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than having one or two people who dominated.
  2. Members scored higher on a test called “Reading the Mind in the Eyes,” which measures how well people can read complex emotional states from images of faces with only the eyes visible.[iii]

Other research has demonstrated the importance of empathy and inclusive communications for co-located and virtual teams. MIT researchers, for example, used electronic badges on team members to collect data on their individual communication behavior, including tone of voice, body language, whom they spoke with and how often. The researchers found “with remarkable consistency, the data confirmed that communication indeed plays a critical role in building successful teams. In fact, we found patterns of communication to be the most important predictor of a team’s success. Not only that, but they are as significant as all the other factors-individual intelligence, personality, skill, and the substance of discussions—combined.”[iv]

Identity and Mismatch of Perceptions

Global teams work most smoothly when members “get” where their colleagues are coming from. Deciphering someone’s identity and finding ways to relate is far from simple, however, especially with global teams. Neeley recommends that when adapting to a new cultural environment, a savvy leader should avoid making assumptions about what behaviors or words mean. “Take a step back, watch and listen,” she recommends. “In America, someone who says, ‘Yes, I can do this’ likely means she is willing and able to do what you’ve asked. In India, however, the same statement may simply signal that she wants to try–not that she’s confident of success. Before drawing conclusions, therefore, ask a lot of questions.”[v]

Technology and the Connection Challenge

Neeley recommends that the modes of communication used by global teams be considered carefully because technology can both reduce and increase social distance. Video conferencing, for instance, allows for rich communication, where both context and emotion can be perceived. It also allows for more empathy. E-mail offers greater ease and efficiency but lacks contextual cues. Using technology wisely can shrink social distance!

Has your company used any of Neeley’s five framework components to lead global teams? What has been the result?

Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and executive coach who works with key decision makers and human resource leaders on global talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and other strategic initiatives, such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. Contact Victor for a free one-hour strategy session at victorassad6@gmail.com. Visit Victor’s website at www.victorhrconsultant.com to download his free HR whitepapers and read more of his blog posts.

[i] Tsedal Neeley (October 2015) “Global Teams That Work,” Harvard Business Review.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Anita Wolley, Thomas W. Mallone and Christopher Chabris (January 18, 2015) “Why Some Teams Are Smarter than Others,” The New York Times, Sunday Review, pp.5.

[iv] Alex “Sandy” Pentland (April, 20120 “The New Science of Building Great Teams,” The Harvard Business Review.

[v] Tsedal Neeley (October 2015) “Global Teams That Work,” Harvard Business Review.

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