Managing Cultural Differences in Your Distributed Team

Distributed teams are the norm for many organisations today. Companies are global, communications technologies allow people to live away from the "office" location and many of the new workforce are nomads. Becoming a high-performing team is possible in a distributed group, it just takes more effort to overcome the inherent challenges of distance.

This is the first in a series of articles which explores the impact of cultural differences on distributed teams - "Distributed Agile - how to work with teams across the globe". You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.

Key takeaways

  • Organisations should work on managing cultural differences in collocated as well as distributed teams to improve collaboration within a team.
  • Cultural differences like different levels of openness, whether people are task oriented or relationship oriented and their tendency of saying “Yes”, influence collaboration among team members.
  • The first step to bridge cultural differences is to ask some impactful questions to team members.
  • To effectively work in a multi cultural distributed team, people should focus on virtues of empathy, awareness, openness, trust and transparency.
  • Practices like culture canvas, culture map, team canvas and working agreement are helpful in fixing cultural barriers.

Most distributed teams consist of people from different cultures, working from their home country. While working remotely is in itself a challenge, cultural differences influence collaboration underneath the surface. As human beings, we believe we can work with anyone from any culture. But after some time, we realize we’re not understanding each other properly. Culture influences communication through different beliefs about openness, responsibility, hierarchy and work in general.

As the title of the article implies, we believe that teams need to 'manage' cultural differences. It's not something that can or should be 'overcome'. And it's also something that can be seen as positive, as bringing additional viewpoints to a team.

What Is Culture?

It’s not always clear what we mean by ‘culture’. It can refer to habits within a group of people from a certain country, company or any other level. 

Within a country, people form certain behaviors; there are values and norms that shape how we act; we communicate in different ways. But often, we are not aware of this, and we’re not able to recognize other people’s behavior within the context of their own culture. While the country culture influences collaboration, the solutions to intercultural challenges lie on the company and team level.

How Culture Influences collaboration in distributed Teams

From our experience at the team level, culture influences the way we collaborate in various ways:

If our teammates have a local mindset, they might prefer to work with people in their own city, speaking their own language. What distributed teams need, however, is a global mindset, where people are interested in getting to know the others and learning about the cultures involved. Having too many people with a local mindset on your distributed team runs the risk of creating an 'us versus them' mentality. 'We over here' flock together and we know how stuff works. 'Those people over there' make all the mistakes and they don’t understand what we need. This type of attitude often derails the whole team.

Task versus relationship orientation:

People in the West (especially in the U.S.) are often task and goal oriented. They want to get their stuff done. People in the U.S., for example, make quick decisions on hiring a certain vendor. If the vendor has what they need, they decide overnight to give him the project. If he screws up, they as easily pull the project back. In Asia, people are very social and believe in building long term relationships. They want to know whom they are going to work with, and they would rather spend several months fostering the relationship before granting a project to a new vendor. But within Asia, there are vast differences. Hugo has recently moved to Indonesia and noticed that people in Jakarta move very fast. After a first talk, proposals are asked and confirmations follow within days.

Europe is somewhat in between (with vast differences between the countries within Europe!).

Level of openness:

Another big influencer is the level of openness. Do I keep my opinions to myself or will I voice them easily? Here we again have a west-east divide. Dutch are very open, however, people in Asia tend to be less open, especially when authority is involved, i.e., “I’m not going to contradict my boss or project manager”. That may be seen as disrespectful. If the boss is in the West and I’m in the East, then my Western boss in turn will keep asking me to be more open or proactive. And I might get confused, because I’m not used to being allowed or even stimulated to voice my ideas. If my boss tells me “This is the way to do it,” I’d rather do that exactly, even if I think it’s a crazy idea. This behavioral difference impacts most of the agile ceremonies. For example, in sprint planning if a product owner asks 'Can you take more user stories?', regardless of the possibility, people in some Asian cultures tend to say "Yes" always, which defeats the whole purpose of doing planning. Similarly, in retrospectives, people hesitate to share real challenges and problems (e.g. because a superior might get offended by it).

Tendency to always say "Yes":

An interesting case, often discussed in global organisations is Indian people always saying ‘yes’. Ged Roberts of TCS wrote an article in one of Hugo’s ebooks titled 'Cultural Differences or How I Managed to Learn to Work with Both Dutch and Indians Without Losing My Hair'. The following excerpt describes the ‘yes’ well:

When I first started working for an Indian company I was given a very sound piece of advice. I was told the following, Ged, there are three ways an Indian person will say “yes” when asked whether they can do something and the response will have one of the following three meanings:

  1. Yes I can do that,
  2. Yes I can do that (it will take me nineteen hours per day but I can do that) and
  3. Yes I can do that (actually I can’t do that, but you are the customer and I cannot say no to a customer)

If you wish to be successful in any relationship with an Indian company, your challenge is to understand which version of “yes” you have just heard. When we probe deeper mainly into the version #3 of “yes” we find a number of cultural items at play.

The first aspect is the extreme levels of customer focus and customer centricity which plays within the Indian psyche. Concepts like 'the customer is always right' and 'the customer pays our wages' (management just handles the money) are prevalent throughout the culture. The second aspect is that there is an assumption that someone will always say yes, consequently if you want the business or you want to maintain the relationship then saying yes ensures that that relationship stays with you. Although there is the worry that the commitment is given without any thoughts to the consequences, this relentless level of customer focus has lead to some quite amazing achievements. Consequently, many times the version that you hear is not version #3 or version #1, but version #2.

This kind of behavior hampers the collaboration and trust between distributed teams. It also fades out the transparency within a team that is the core of agile teams.

How to work with the cultural differences

The above shows that culture is relevant. It impacts organizations, teams and outcomes. To work with the influence of culture, we've developed a set of questions organizations can ask. These questions help create awareness of the impact of culture. It also helps identify what possible pain points exist. We've also defined a set of 'virtues': behaviors that help organizations manage cultural differences in distributed teams. And we've described some practices that can be used to address culture.

Questions

The below questions are a good starting point for cultural awareness. They are best used in a facilitated team session with people from the respective cultures. They can also be shared online as a survey or in a trello board (columns with questions, tickets with answers and discussions). They are meant to be 'played with'.

  • Are we experiencing impact from cultural differences?
  • Do we have an 'us versus them' paradigm?
  • How do we deal with differences?
  • What will we do to get the differences to the surface?
  • How comfortable is each culture with being open, sharing matters of mind and heart?
  • What's the impact of cultural differences if we're collocated versus distributed?
  • How much hierarchy do we have in our organization?
  • How does each culture perceive hierarchy?
  • How much 'self organisation' do we expect?
  • What can we do to get everyone on the same level of 'self organization'?
  • To what degree does language have impact?
  • Does everyone have the same understanding of saying 'no'?

Virtues

To effectively work in a multi cultural distributed team, there's a handful of behaviors that help people work with cultural differences:

  • Empathy: accept differences, 'jam' with them
  • Awareness: becoming aware of the differences
  • Openness: sharing what's on your mind
  • Trust people more than process
  • Transparency

Awareness of cultural differences is the starting point to 'acceptance'. Once we become aware that certain behaviors of other people originate from their cultural background, we generate understanding. With this understanding, we can move on to accept the differences as a fact of our situation. Based on this acceptance, we can find ways to organize work 'around' them.

Empathy means 'putting yourself in the shoes of another person'. People with high degrees of empathy tend to be good listeners. They are strong at experiencing and feeling what someone else experiences and feels. This heightened understanding helps people to collaborate better across cultures.

Complete openness (or honesty) means: I have an image about something (an object, a situation) in my mind. If I am 100% open, I will share that image with you as it appears in my mind. I'll share any information I have in my mind with you; I will not change or hold back anything that matters in this situation. Openness helps people understand each other. It helps teams to inspect what's going on and adapt in order to achieve the outcomes they're after.

Transparency is the key to build trust among team members. Being distributed it is even more important to be transparent and share achievements as well as challenges and co-create the solutions. If some discussions and acts of any team member do not resonate with your culture, be transparent and share your perspective.

We create processes to bridge cultural gaps, however, trust is more important to make processes suit to your work style, hence, trusting people has higher value than following processes.

Practices

By acknowledging how your country’s culture affects your company culture (and how your company culture affects your team’s communication), you have taken the first step in becoming a more engaged leader with a highly collaborative and more efficient global team. But it’s not enough to simply acknowledge and understand how country and company cultures affect teams.

Over the years, Hugo has developed some practical tools and practices that teams can use to address their cultural differences. Take a look at the list below and see how you can break down the cultural barriers holding back your distributed team.

Hire For Empathy

If your team consists of people who are only data-oriented and focused on getting stuff done (e.g. writing code) and not on fostering and understanding relationships, you might face a lot of miscommunication. Your team will not feel like a single unit, but rather a collection of individuals scattered around the globe. To counter this, it helps to hire some people with high emotional intelligence, particularly when it comes to empathy. Paying attention to gender balance can be a way to impact this.

In my experience, leadership must stimulate empathy on several levels as shown in this graph:

1. Country

By organizing training that address culture in group discussions, leadership stimulates understanding within the team. Given the chance to empathize with the other culture, people will naturally understand each other’s behavior better. People will better understand why I behave x and you behave y. Based on that understanding, we can organize around the perceived differences as a team. We can discuss them and find ways to deal with them. This eventually leads to effective, well balanced teams.

2. Company

Especially if the setup is: headquarters in country X and then remote team members in country Y (and others), it’s important that leadership stimulates understanding about the company itself. In headquarters, people will automatically feel closer to the company’s mission and value system. They’ll discuss it over coffee, they meet the leadership team regularly, they have more company parties, etc. But the remote team members need to be engaged here too. A specific program to spread the culture needs to be designed, planned, and executed.

3. Product

People far away don’t (often) talk to users of the product they’re building. They don’t have the coffee chat with the product owners. They may even lack the context of the product (if we’re developing an insurance product, my country might have a completely different insurance system). It’s crucial to stimulate the remote team members in wanting to understand everything about the product. This may include meetings with the users of the product, trips to the headquarters, videos to transfer knowledge, and more.

4. Team

Finally, leadership can stimulate the team to form bonds within their teams. Give a budget for trainings or trips. Allow them time off work to do exercises together, to discuss off-work topics. Our webinar participants recommended quarterly gatherings would be the optimal rate at which to bring everyone together to the same location.

The Culture Canvas

Another useful tool is the culture canvas. This canvas can be filled by the distributed team (ideally in one space).

Hugo gives the example that as a Dutch team member, I would fill this in regarding the collaboration with my colleagues, for example, in India. I’ll take the “perspective” and use sticky notes to indicate what I hear about my Indian team mates. I’ll indicate what pains and gains I derive from the collaboration, etc. I might write that I have a lot of gain from the creativity my Indian team brings to my project, as this enables me to deliver a better product to my customers.

My Indian teammates will do the same thing in turn for me. They might say that they consider me to be very open. In a way they gain from this because they know what’s going on. But they may sometimes feel hurt because I come across as blunt.

Now after we’ve both filled the canvas (and yes it requires openness from both sides—so you may want to do some warm up exercises before doing this), we can compare the results. We can make a list of the top five issues we identified and then discuss ways to deal with them. What could we change in our communication or in our process to avoid the issues going forward? Or, could we introduce some specific tools to help us improve?

This Culture Canvas is inspired by the empathy map of Alexander Osterwalder.

The culture Map

Alexander Osterwalder recently created a new tool called 'the culture map'. The culture map is a good variant of the above canvas. The map is made to design corporate culture. But it's generic enough to apply it to intercultural collaboration. It works like this:

Start by mapping behaviors: In this box you have to map out how your team acts or conducts itself within the company. What do you do or say? How do you interact? What patterns do you notice. Some examples: “although we are self organizing teams, not everybody takes up work equally” or “not everyone is openly saying 'no' if they don't understand something'.

Next, map your outcomes: What are the concrete positive or negative consequences because of the behavior you’ve mapped out? An example: the behavior of not taking up work autonomously by some team members leads to unproductive teams and sprint commitments are not made. Because not everyone is open about not understanding certain user stories, time is lost during the sprint for clarification. And often things are built that were not completely what the product owner had in mind.

Finish by mapping your enablers and blockers: This is where The Culture Map gets really interesting. In enablers and blockers you have to map out all of the things that lead to the positive or negative behaviors inside your company. What policies, actions, or rules are influencing employees behaviors, and ultimately influencing your company’s outcomes? Some examples of blockers: a poor bonus system or no budget for sticky notes. Some examples of enablers: smart management team or a well made metrics dashboard.

You can ask your team members to all fill this map individually and then discuss the results. Or you can do it as a facilitated group exercise (maybe hire Alexander?). Once you've mapped out all the 'negatives', you can start re-shaping the culture. You could come up with behaviors that will have the outcomes you're after. You could re-organize work, policies, salary systems, tools, etc that enable the behaviors you want, which result in the outcomes you're after.

Spread the values that matter

When Hugo started his company in 2005, he had no experience with intercultural teams. One of the first things he did was to sit together with his Indian team to define what values everyone had in common. In a session of several hours and some iterations, we defined 6 core values for Bridge Global. They are still alive today. Throughout the years, we found that 2 values have had the biggest impact on working with distributed teams: openness and entrepreneurship/responsibility. Indian culture is less 'open' than Dutch culture. By making openness a core value, we've always been able to attract people in India who are more open than average. We've created an onboarding program in which existing colleagues share how openness (and other values) has helped them work with colleagues and customers. How it has enabled them to grow personally and create the outcomes the company needs. In collaborations, people share what's on their minds now. They'll ask questions if requirements are not clear. They will discuss openly what bothers them.

Entrepreneurship has led people to feel accountable for the results of their work. People are put in front of customers from day 1 (whereas in many Indian companies they are hidden behind project managers, team leads and other roles). They get direct feedback from customers in the form of monthly ratings. Their salaries are even dependent on that rating. So people deliver and don't hide behind their superiors or colleagues.

By defining what behavior is desired, organizations create clarity. If defined clearly, they work across cultures. These values can then be used to give people feedback on their performance and behavior.

Working Agreement

People in different locations take punctuality differently. Therefore, when teams have common meetings across locations they need to understand other team members perspective related to time sensitivity. For example, In North America and in India being “on time” typically allows for a 5-minute grace period because of traffic and transportation hiccups. In contrast, “on time” in Germany is arriving 5 minutes early.

When Savita works with teams, she helps team create working agreement. Working agreement is a set of norms, the team creates to follow without fail to make themselves more efficient and successful. It is a very powerful technique because it is being established by a good discussion which surfaces different mindsets and behaviours and help people come to a common ground. Teams use it to set up scrum ceremonies time and grace periods as well as what will happen if someone doesn't follow the agreement.

Working agreement is also helpful to assess their assumptions and ask themselves why they hold those ideas or beliefs. By doing this and discussing with others, the initial barrier to intercultural communication can be overcome.

Team Alignment

It is difficult to get every team member to change how they think overnight. Rather than trying to build understanding about agile methods as a full set, first align everyone on goals, roles and skills, values, rules and activities. This is a good way to avoid conflicts in a team. Alex Ivanov and Mitya Voloshuk present a model called Team Canvas for team alignment.

The Team Canvas is a Business Model Canvas for teamwork. It is a free tool for leaders, facilitators and consultants to organize team alignment meetings and bring members on the same page, resolve conflicts and build productive culture, fast. Alex and Mitya says that based on their experience and research on company cultures, they identified the key components of self-leading teams that tend to have a) sustainable creative culture and b) high performance standards. Summing up in three words, it is a mix of purpose, openness and mastery. Based on these attributes they came with the team canvas. Below is the example of the team canvas:

Goals: What are the goals for the whole team, as well as for each team member?

Roles and Skills: What are the roles and corresponding skills that each member posses in the team?

Values: What are the core values that you share as a team?

Rules and Activities: What are the ground rules that you want to agree on? How are you going to communicate? How would you make your decisions? How are you going to plan, execute and evaluate them?

Conclusion

Culture has an influence on distributed teamwork on many levels. Looking at culture from a country perspective, a good start to make collaboration more smooth, is to acknowledge what aspects influence work. By recognizing these influencers, we can accept them and look for ways to organize given the cultural differences. By asking the right questions, we become aware of the influencers. We can then work towards behavior that bridges the differences (based on the virtues we defined above). To get to the right behaviors, we've shared several practices that worked for us, but there are many more that could be used. All the above mentioned techniques bring value in a positive environment where people feel safe to express themselves and try new things. Without the right culture as a foundation, tools and processes won’t get you very far.

The post originally appeared on InfoQ.