Many companies today rely on employees around the world, leveraging their diversity and local expertise to gain a competitive edge. However, geographically dispersed teams face a big challenge: Physical separation and cultural differences can create social distance, or a lack of emotional connection, that leads to misunderstandings and mistrust.
To help global team leaders manage effectively, the author shares her SPLIT framework for mitigating social distance. It has five components:
- Structure. If a team is made up of groups with different views about their relative power, the leader should connect frequently with those who are farthest away and emphasize unity.
- Process. Meeting processes should allow for informal interactions that build empathy.
- Language. Everyone, regardless of language fluency, should be empowered to speak up.
- Identity. Team members must be active cultural learners and teachers to understand one another’s identity and avoid misinterpreting behaviors.
- Technology. When choosing between videoconferencing, e-mail, and other modes of communication, leaders should ask themselves if real-time conversation is desirable, if their message needs reinforcement, and if they are opting for the technology they want others to use.
Idea in Brief
When teams consist of people from different cultures working apart from one another in different locations, social distance—or a lack of emotional connection—can cause miscommunication, misunderstanding, and distrust.
The leaders of global teams can improve the workings of their groups by using the author’s SPLIT framework to identify and address five sources of social distance: structure, process, language, identity, and technology.
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.