Cultural Diversity as a Strength on Virtual Teams
Andrea Keil, Dirk Doppelfeld, Dr. Ralf Friedrich
Fast-evolving technology and innovations in collaboration systems make it easier to compose teams with members who are chosen by their expertise but might be from different locations. These project teams often consist of team members living in diverse countries. This not only means different time zones, languages, or workflow, but also means a variety of unforeseen cultural disparities. Embracing cultural diversity not only helps to include remote-working team members but it also offers opportunities for all team members to express their individual strengths and limitations, regardless of their ethnic or cultural affiliation.
Every individual’s cultural characteristics are both visible (behaviors, products, and artifacts) and invisible (norms, values, and basic assumptions or fundamental beliefs). Although most of them are acquired during childhood and represent the culture we were brought up in, we can unlearn or enrich what we have learned, and develop new characteristics that allow us to more effectively address the challenges we face. Therefore, it is important to understand each person’s individual cultural imprints, which might resemble those of their peer group but also reflect their own personal experiences.
Adding to the complexity of intercultural project teams are the limitations of virtual communication. Lack of nonverbal communication reduces messages to their factual content and lacks the interpersonal level. Can you imagine a group of people working together without motivation, humor, affection, or trust? Intentional team activities are necessary to compensate for the reduced personal interaction of distributed teams. This will initiate team spirit and allow team members to connect across cultures.
What Is Culture?
Culture embodies the knowledge, beliefs, art, laws, customs, capabilities, and habits of individuals in a group of people (Tylor, 2013). Its core elements are traditional ideas and values (Kluckhohn et al., 1974). Culture manifests itself in the way a human group thinks, feels, and reacts. These behavioral patterns represent the specific identity of a group. They are often acquired and transmitted by symbols and might include concrete objects produced by the group (Williams, 2014).
Hofstede et al.’s onion model of culture (2010) shows that symbols and heroes of a culture, which form the outer layers, are more visible than rituals and values (Figure 1).
Figure 1. Four key layers of the onion model (Hofstede et al., 2010).
The outer layers represent cultural artifacts or symbols, such as flags, architecture, or traditional clothing. Heroes make up the next layer, such as Winston Churchill in the United Kingdom, and tend to represent many of the culture’s values and beliefs. The next layer is composed of common rituals and traditions. This could include how people greet each other, eat meals, get married, or practice their religion. In the center of the onion model, there are the underlying values and cultural assumptions that influence all the other layers. These beliefs, norms, and attitudes are much harder to recognize without a deeper analysis and thorough understanding of each of these layers and how they interact.
In experiencing cultures, we learn to respect their different symbols, heroes, and rituals. But our own values can bring us to the edge of our comfort zone when challenged by those of a different culture.
The Inuit live in the polar circle. For centuries, they have lived as nomads. In their tradition, they bury their dead above ground, wrapped in blankets, and protected by stone walls. A similar practice can be found in Tibet, where the rocky ground is also frozen for most of the year. This example demonstrates cultural practices as a response to the environment that cannot necessarily be adapted anywhere.
The Culture Map
For intercultural project work, it is useful to have an approximate understanding of cultural differences in foreign countries. Most managers working in international projects have little understanding of how culture is impacting their work. Even with cultures that seem to have a lot of common ground, subtle differences in communication patterns and what is considered common sense exist and have a huge impact on how to understand one another and get things done (Meyer, 2014).
Erin Meyer has collected how people think, lead, and get things done (Figure 2) for several nationalities.
Figure 2. Example of French, German, Chinese, and Japanese conduct in business in general (Meyer, 2014).
The eight scales represent key areas in which cultures vary from one extreme to its opposite. Knowing about cultural differences in general business behavior helps in decoding cultural influences on international collaboration. In practice, it helps you find the right approach to motivate employees, organize conference calls, or just avoid painful situations.
The eight scales incorporate
- Communicating: low context versus high context
- Evaluating: direct negative feedback versus indirect negative feedback
- Persuading: principles first versus applications first
- Leading: egalitarian versus hierarchical
- Deciding: consensual versus top down
- Trusting: task based versus relationship based
- Disagreeing: confrontational versus avoids confrontation
- Scheduling: linear time versus flexible time
When working with team members from various cultures, it is important not only to understand how you perceive people from other cultures, but also to be sensitive to how those international colleagues perceive one another (Meyer, 2014).
Cultural Orientation Framework
The concept of cultural orientation is defined as an inclination to think, feel, or act in a way that is culturally determined. It affects each team member to a different degree. People are influenced by a variety of cultures they are surrounded with. A cultural orientation might resemble that of its peer group but also might reflect personal experiences and adjustment to it. Therefore, it is important to look at the actual composition of your team and its members (Rosinski, 2003).
The cultural orientation framework (COF) consists of a range of cultural dimensions grouped in seven categories:
- Sense of power and responsibility: control versus humility
- Time management approaches: scarce versus plentiful, monochronic versus polychronic, etc.
- Definitions of identity and purpose: individualistic versus collectivistic, being versus doing, etc.
- Organizational arrangements: competitive versus collaborative, stability versus change, hierarchy versus equality, etc.
- Notions of territory and boundaries: protective versus sharing
- Communication patterns: high context versus low context, direct versus indirect, affective versus neutral, etc.
- Modes of thinking: deductive versus inductive, analytical versus systemic, etc.
You can assess each team member’s individual mix of preferred behavior (“orientation,” see Figure 3) and capability to adapt to divergent ones (“ability,” see Figure 4) with the Cultural Orientation Framework (COF), a free online self-assessment tool (http://cof-online.com).
Figure 3. Example of COF questionnaire, rating orientations of “sense of power and responsibility.”
Figure 4. Example of COF questionnaire, rating abilities of “sense of power and responsibility.”
The goal is not to replace one cultural shaping with another one, but to synthesize the polarities. For example, direct communication prevents misunderstandings by favoring clarity, but may inadvertently offend your counterpart. Indirect communication, which values harmony and sensitivity, enriches your communication. Combining the two polarities, by being clear on the content and sensitive in your manner, helps you achieve the best of both forms of communication.
Conception of time is another example. When considering that time is scarce, you are likely to become more productive, but by overloading your agenda with too many activities, and speeding up, you risk becoming overwhelmed without necessarily spending time on what truly matters. When you think of time as plentiful, you are likely to slow down and regain perspective. In combining both perspectives, you will become more efficient (doing things right) as well as effective (doing the right things) (Rosinski, 2003).
Figure 5. Example of COF evaluation, showing a team member’s personal orientation (red dots) and ability to tolerate others’ preferences (orange area).
Figure 5 shows a team member’s COF evaluation where the red dots mark the individual’s own preferred behaviour, while the orange area marks the range of the individual’s capability to adapt to team members’ differing behaviours.
For more information on the Cultural Orientation Framework and its procedure, please visit cof-online.com.
Virtual Team Maturity Model
Adding to the complexity of intercultural project teams are the limitations of virtual communication, as international team members work from different locations and communicate via virtual collaboration tools, mainly emails and phone calls. Lack of nonverbal communication reduces messages to their factual content and misses the interpersonal level (Curlee, 2008; Wong & Burton, 2008). This is enhanced by cultural differences in communication and results in reluctance to trust one’s teammates.
Once team leaders have assessed cultural differences and diversity among virtual team members, they still need to address them and detect areas in virtual teamwork where they might cause conflict. With limitations on time and budget, there is not much room to evaluate every internal process individually (Nemiro et al., 2008).
The virtual team maturity model (VTMM®) was developed to provide a reference model against which virtual teams can be assessed whereby gaps in performance can be identified and closed (Friedrich, 2017). The model focuses on internal project team processes that are highly sensitive to challenges of virtual collaboration and differing communication and work practices among cultures (Figure 6). The model proposes clear steps to improve virtual team performance quickly to compensate for lack of face-to-face interactions in virtual teams, such as imparting tacit communication, building trust, giving feedback, establishing work rules, and offering rewards and recognition (Friedrich et al., 2017).
Figure 6. Virtual team maturity model, VTMM: 11 processes to assess and improve virtual teamwork (GeProS – German Project Solutions, 2018).
Following the recommendation of the Project Management Institute (PMI), each process is described by inputs, methods, and outputs (PMI, 2017). These are measured by key performance indicators (KPIs) to gauge how well a process is executed. The presence of these KPIs is investigated during an assessment that the whole team participates in. The results of the assessment highlight areas that limit effectiveness in virtual project teams. To alleviate these limits, a set of methods deriving from the VTMM is introduced that gauges the level of competence in the identified areas for project teams (Friedrich & Keil, 2018).
Virtual Tip #1
|Avoid cultural dominance|
Methods to Strengthen Culturally Diverse Virtual Teams
The following methods are among those used in the VTMM to improve virtual teamwork. They focus mainly on compensating for missing face-to-face interaction in intercultural virtual teams as well as raising awareness of cultural differences and their perception by other team members.
Method # 1: Create a Safe Space
Build Your Team Culture on Trust!
Create a team culture as a safe space the team is working in that encourages building relationships and trust among team members in virtual teams. A safe space is characterized by virtual closeness among the team members, which is the perceived closeness between two or more group members and their perceived closeness to the context and space wherein they interact (Hildebrandt, 2013).
- Perform the COF individually
- Discuss your COF results
- Identify areas of possible conflict
- Develop a team charter
- Define a process to address cultural incidents
- Share cultural facts
Method #2: Share Fun Cultural Activities
Learn About Each Other’s Amazing Culture!
- Dressing in traditional costumes demonstrates interest in other cultures. It is also a fun way to experience another culture.
- When in a virtual team, you can take pictures individually at different locations and put them together as a collage.
- Make it a guessing game: Each team member provides a photo of traditional costumes and all team members guess who is who/belongs to what culture.
- You can also tell your teammates about your culture’s traditional festivals that are so unique they can only be traditional activities.
Method #3: Find Similar Cultural Traditions
The Same Expression Can Have Different Meaning!
- Carnival is celebrated in many cultures. We usually associate it with what we know best. Let everyone share their experience and see if you can bond over common practices.
- Religious festivals include treats and lights in most cultures. Share some of its traditions and find out when it is celebrated. Can you match the subtitles to the pictures?
Method #4: Introduce an Intercultural Team Calendar
Celebrate Our Wonderful Variety of Cultures!
- Identify cultural events that are relevant for the team members. Together you can think about ways to honor these events (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Intercultural calendar 2020 showing different religious and public holidays (Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge, 2020).
Virtual Tip # 2
|Cultural diversity has its charms|
Method #5: Create an Intercultural Team Vision
Shape Your Team’s Unique Team Culture!
Creative work makes unconscious values and feelings available. It directly transfers your emotions without any intellectual validation. A common vision is much stronger when supported with emotional attachment. In a safe and relaxed atmosphere, team members can share their expectations and ideas (see Figure 88).
Figure 8. Examples of team visions (GeProS – German Project Solutions, 2019).
- Each team member draws a picture of the team vision
- Make a gallery session with all drawings
- Interpret all images
- Extract common themes
- Formulate the vision based on these images
Today’s project teams consist of team members with different cultural backgrounds. This cultural diversity challenges a team, but it also contains initiatives for personal development as well as team growth. We are unaware of most of our culturally defined habits and beliefs. In situations of increased pressure, we tend to fall back on our inherent behaviors and expectations. Different expectations and communication patterns cause misunderstanding and build up to conflicts. As a preventive measure, it is important to create a team culture based on interpersonal relationships and trust among team members.
There are several methods to facilitate team member’s adjustment to diversity. Some are described in this article; more can be found on https://vtmm.org. They all help to instill a sense of self-awareness, curiosity in other cultures, recognition of different preferences, and team-based agreements.
We regard cultural differences as an opportunity for true innovation. Enjoy working globally and experience the amazing spectrum of cultural diversity.
Bundesamt für Migration und Flüchtlinge. (2020). Interkultureller kalender 2020.
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About the Authors
Andrea Keil has lived and worked across the globe for many years, where she gathered extensive knowledge on intercultural issues and project management. She obtained her master’s degree in economics specializing in international relations at University Trier, Germany and University of California. Berkeley, USA, and is a Certified Intercultural Trainer (DGIKT, Germany). Over the last few years, she has contributed to several international research projects on virtual teams and performance improvement. Ms. Keil enjoys designing and delivering interactive international workshops and online training. She constantly refines and updates Virtual Team Maturity Model (VTMM®), an assessment tool to measure and develop collaboration in virtual teams. Working virtually allows her to combine her passion for intercultural collaboration with raising her five children.
Ralf Friedrich, PhD, is highly skilled in developing trainers and leaders around the world. He was trained by the Coaches Training Institute to become a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach. Additionally, he is a Board Certified Coach (BCC) of the Centre for Credentialing & Education (CCE) and an alternative psychotherapist. Furthermore, Dr. Friedrich is an assessor for the International Standards in Mentoring and Coaching Programmes (ISMCP) award of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC), verifying the effectiveness of company mentoring and coaching systems. He has more than 20 years of experience in international coaching, with a focus on coaching project leaders and teams in organizational change situations. As the founder and CEO of GeProS GmbH, he developed a qualification process for coaches and consultants, ensuring excellent qualification results and high customer satisfaction.
Dirk Doppelfeld, PMP, supports organizations and individuals in enhancing their project management skills through consulting, training, and coaching. He obtained his master’s degree in economics from the University of Bonn (Germany). Living in France, his entire professional career has been performed in an intercultural context. After almost 20 years working in the printing industry as a project manager, he founded Project & Service Solutions, an international consulting, training, and coaching company in 2011. He holds a variety of international certifications in project management, including the Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, Prince2 Practitioner, Professional Scrum Master (PSM I), Professional Scrum Product Owner (PSPO I), and Certified Disciplined Agilist™ (CDA). In addition, he is a PMI Authorized Training Partner (ATP). For several years, he has partnered with GeProS to promote the Virtual Team Maturity Model (VTMM®) in French-speaking countries around the world.