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Managing Intercultural Communication in the Virtual Team

Neil Payne

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Working in an intercultural environment is becoming increasingly common. One of the results of such set-ups is an experience of more communication difficulties. Different approaches to areas such management, communication, time, meetings, conflict resolution and the sharing of information are all culturally relative. When cultures come together and differ in their approaches, misunderstandings can and do occur. It is these that can often lead to poor team performance or morale.

The intercultural team is by no means a straightforward environment. People need to be aware and sensitive to the dynamics of the group. However, consider the extra challenges when this team is virtual. By their very definition, virtual teams bring together people from different time zones, cultures, geographies and mind-sets making it highly unlikely that much team work will happen face-to-face, if at all. Consequently communication takes on a whole new dimension making it even more of a challenge.

In order to operate effectively any team needs trust. Building trust is critical. Yet in the virtual team this is very difficult to achieve. Without spending much time together can a team really gel? Some cultures such as the U. S. or Germany may find it easy, i. e. they come from cultures where the relationship is not crucial. Other, more relationship driven cultures such as the Middle East or South America, may however struggle to ever feel totally at ease working with someone they do not know on a personal level.

Cultures have different ways of communicating; some are comfortable expressing opinions and discussing things openly and directly; others look for more subtle ways of expressing themselves. Some may have no issues raising delicate subjects in front of others; many cultures would not even contemplate doing so in an open arena. Some cultures use a lot of non-vernal communication such body language and eye-contact to convey meaning; others rely almost completely on the spoken word. Some cultures are comfortable getting right down to business while others need a little time to make dialogue comfortable.

Working “blind”, i. e. not being in each others presence, increases the chances of misunderstandings. Throw in the cultural complexities and managing this is twice as problematic. Team members who are quieter (whether due to cultural or personal leanings) will make less of a contribution on telephone conference calls. Language proficiency will also play a significant role in the ability of people to contribute. Imagine how challenging it is for someone to join a spirited conversation on the telephone if they are either uncomfortable interrupting or not fluent in the language being used.

These are but a few of the many intercultural complexities that make virtual teams very challenging.

For those working in an intercultural virtual team, the following ten tips are good guidelines to keep in mind to ensure communication is kept clear:

1. If possible it is beneficial to bring all team members together physically. This can be at the birth of the team or at regular intervals.
2. The manager or team together should establish clear ground rules of engagement covering issues such as:
a. How meetings are to be structured
b. How decisions will be made
c. How written communications will be used
d. How responses should be processed or given
e. How conflicts will be resolved
f. Whether interrupting a speaker will be acceptable
3. Written agendas for team meetings are important to give structure.
4. Clear, easy-to-understand objectives that are communicated frequently must be created.
5. Carefully monitor how comfortable all team members are with the technology used in virtual meetings or communication. Support those that may be struggling.
6. Develop clear guidelines for email regarding formality and timeliness of response.
7. Solicit feedback from all participants.
8. Be careful not to always interpret silence as agreement or incomprehension.
9. Follow-up meetings with written communication to be sure everyone understands.
10. Create an atmosphere that tolerates differences.

Neil Payne is Managing Director and Middle East trainer at the London based consultancy Kwintessential. For more information on their services please visit Intercultural Communication


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