Fernando Fischmann

Global Teams That Work

30 September, 2015 / Articles

To succeed in the global economy today, more and more companies are relying on a geographically dispersed workforce. They build teams that offer the best functional expertise from around the world, combined with deep, local knowledge of the most promising markets. They draw on the benefits of international diversity, bringing together people from many cultures with varied work experiences and different perspectives on strategic and organizational challenges. All this helps multinational companies compete in the current business environment.

 But managers who actually lead global teams are up against stiff challenges. Creating successful work groups is hard enough when everyone is local and people share the same office space. But when team members come from different countries and functional backgrounds and are working in different locations, communication can rapidly deteriorate, misunderstanding can ensue, and cooperation can degenerate into distrust.

 Preventing this vicious dynamic from taking place has been a focus of my research, teaching, and consulting for more than 15 years. I have conducted dozens of studies and heard from countless executives and managers about misunderstandings within the global teams they have joined or led, sometimes with costly consequences. But I have also encountered teams that have produced remarkable innovations, creating millions of dollars in value for their customers and shareholders.

 One basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance—the degree of emotional connection among team members. When people on a team all work in the same place, the level of social distance is usually low. Even if they come from different backgrounds, people can interact formally and informally, align, and build trust. They arrive at a common understanding of what certain behaviors mean, and they feel close and congenial, which fosters good teamwork. Coworkers who are geographically separated, however, can’t easily connect and align, so they experience high levels of social distance and struggle to develop effective interactions. Mitigating social distance therefore becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.

 To help in this task, I have developed and tested a framework for identifying and successfully managing social distance. It is called the SPLIT framework, reflecting its five components: structure, process, language, identity, and technology—each of which can be a source of social distance. In the following pages I explain how each can lead to team dysfunction and describe how smart leaders can fix problems that occur—or prevent them from happening in the first place.

 Structure and the Perception of Power

In the context of global teams, the structural factors determining social distance are the location and number of sites where team members are based and the number of employees who work at each site.

 The fundamental issue here is the perception of power. If most team members are located in Germany, for instance, with two or three in the United States and in South Africa, there may be a sense that the German members have more power. This imbalance sets up a negative dynamic. People in the larger (majority) group may feel resentment toward the minority group, believing that the latter will try to get away with contributing less than its fair share. Meanwhile, those in the minority group may believe that the majority is usurping what little power and voice they have.

 The situation is exacerbated when the leader is at the site with the most people or the one closest to company headquarters: Team members at that site tend to ignore the needs and contributions of their colleagues at other locations. This dynamic can occur even when everyone is in the same country: The five people working in, say, Beijing may have a strong allegiance to one another and a habit of shutting out their two colleagues in Shanghai.

 When geographically dispersed team members perceive a power imbalance, they often come to feel that there are in-groups and out-groups. Consider the case of a global marketing team for a U.S.-based multinational pharmaceutical company. The leader and the core strategy group for the Americas worked in the company’s Boston-area headquarters. A smaller group in London and a single individual in Moscow focused on the markets in Europe. Three other team members, who split their time between Singapore and Tokyo, were responsible for strategy in Asia. The way that each group perceived its situation is illustrated in the exhibit below.




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