2008 Graziadio School Student Paper Competition – How Intercultural Competence Drives Success in Global Virtual Teams

Leveraging global virtual teams through intercultural curiosity, sensitivity, and respect.

2008 Volume 11 Issue 4

*Winner of the 2008 Graziadio School Student Paper Competition

Organizations are increasingly turning to global virtual teams to gain a strategic advantage. Global virtual teams are heterogeneous groups of internationally dispersed coworkers that assemble using a combination of telecommunications and information technologies to accomplish organizational tasks.[1] With the growing deployment of such teams, it is becoming more important for organizations to understand what makes them successful.

Many of the principles and theories used for traditional teams as well as virtual teams are true for global virtual teams. However, global virtual teams are further along the continuum of time, distance, and space, and therefore, are more complex. This intricacy introduces new variables for effectiveness, such as intercultural competence. A study conducted by the author[2] determined that a team member’s intercultural competence (defined as being attuned to cultural differences) strongly influences the degree of effectiveness of global virtual teams, and that building relationships, establishing structure, and having discipline are critical for success.

We have a stronger team because people have intercultural competence. We respect people’s differences. It has resulted in strong camaraderie and trust.—Anonymous research participant






Image by David Luscombe






What is Intercultural Competence?

Intercultural competence is the body of knowledge and skills to successfully interact with people from other ethnic, religious, cultural, national, and geographic groups. When someone has a high degree of intercultural competence, they are able to have successful interactions with people from different groups. People must be curious about other cultures, sensitive to cultural differences, and also willing to modify their behavior as a sign of respect for other cultures.[3]

Global Virtual Teams and Intercultural Competence

Intercultural competence is a relatively unexamined aspect of global virtual teams. The majority of research conducted on virtual teaming has focused either on modifying similar variables to those of face-to-face teams or on examining how technology and/or virtual environments impact effectiveness. To address this knowledge gap, the author fielded a research study in spring 2008, which revealed that intercultural competence may improve the effectiveness of global virtual teams. More specifically, if members of a global virtual team have an increased degree of intercultural competence then the following outcomes will occur:

  • The team’s ability to perform tasks will be enhanced (improved task performance).
  • The team’s ability to exchange and understand communications will increase (improved overall communications).
  • The group will make the leap from a task group into a real team[4] (increased engagement, structure, and discipline).

While intuitively there is a link between a team member’s ability to successfully interact with others and the degree of team effectiveness, based on the findings of the study, organizations are currently not paying attention to intercultural competence as an important factor. Organizations do not work on cultivating global virtual team members’ intercultural competence nor do they select team members for high degrees of intercultural competence.

The impact of intercultural competence on team effectiveness is huge. If people do not understand how they are perceived culturally, then they don’t understand where they are creating their own road blocks. It can lead to projects not finishing on time and misperceptions.
—Anonymous research participant

Why Global Virtual Teams?

The excitement about global virtual teams is similar to the teamwork trend felt during the 1980s. One lesson learned then was that organizations could not simply put these teams in place and expect them to work. It takes effort and time to realize the benefits. Building and managing global virtual teams requires a similar investment. If done correctly, however, building global virtual teams can deliver even greater benefits than traditional teams.

Benefits of Going Global

  • Access to Talent Across the Globe: Global virtual teams open up the possibilities to worldwide markets and, therefore, give access to new markets of people who best fit the desired talent and skills.
  • Diverse Perspectives: Research indicates that, once teams break through conflict caused by diversity, the benefit of new thought and perspectives often leads to increased innovation.
  • Local Advantage: Due to the global makeup of these teams, local team members become representatives and experts in their international market.

Benefits of Going Virtual

  • Reducing Travel Expense: Through leveraging global virtual teams, international travel, food, and accommodation fees are minimized, while maintaining the advantages associated with having team members from different locales and with different perspectives.
  • More Thoughtful Responses: Communication via email or other text-based technologies allows team members more time to respond, which can lead to more thoughtful responses (as opposed to face-to-face or even phone conversations).
  • Increased Flexibility and Responsiveness: Globally linked technology solutions give access to required information. For example, project documents and status reports are available at a moment’s notice, and teams spanning the globe allow people to respond to challenges 24/7.

Leveraging these benefits offers a “virtual edge” and can result in extraordinary performance.[5] However, global virtual teams also face many challenges.

Challenges

  • Potential conflict arising from cultural differences
  • Misinterpretation of communications due to accents, colloquialisms, and lack of nonverbal cues or gestures such as head nodding (Communication barriers vary depending upon the virtual solution being used, e.g., text, voice, or video.)
  • Scheduling to accommodate various time zones

One way that organizations can overcome these issues and build high-performing global virtual teams is by developing team members’ intercultural competence.

I have seen intercultural competence help team effectiveness, when people from different cultures actively inquire into different people’s point of view. Something like, “I would like to hear more about your thoughts.” This gives them an invitation to share. Another example from my team is when someone from Asia offered feedback and took a risk, speaking up more than they would do to their superior. They learned a new behavior [and] tried it on the global virtual team. It is very rare that you see this, but when it happens it is magical.—Anonymous research participant

When focusing on global virtual teams, developing and increasing an individual’s and a team’s intercultural competence is an important variable in determining the team’s success.

Intercultural competence has helped our team incredibly. The fact that you took the time to understand something about me and my culture is an incredibly powerful connector. . . . For example, when talking to people from a culture I have worked with, I will use a [common] phrase [from their culture] and they will say something like, “You know us.” It is an ice breaker where you can find common ground immediately. It is the feeling of being known and meeting people on their ground.
—Anonymous research participant

Managing Conflict

Having the emotional resilience and flexibility to manage conflicts and changes within teams helps both individuals and the team. This includes having the emotional intelligence to sense how ideas, thoughts, and opinions are perceived as well as how team members are experiencing team-related work. Furthermore, being open-minded positions team members to be curious about others and fosters a willingness to listen. Another aspect of open-mindedness is an interest in cultural differences.

The first example . . . is when on one particular team when the situation got very tense and there was a lot of yelling. I think that the ability of the U.S. member to do the following was helpful: They did not take it personally; they let the other person vent and then in the conversation went back to the data. I think they recognized that the behavior was, to a certain extent, culturally determined, and therefore, the U.S. person did not take it personally.—Anonymous research participant

The implications of the research findings are that intercultural competence aids in team members’ ability to build team relationships and manage conflict. Virtual teamwork is more complex than working face-to-face, and site-specific cultures and the lack of familiarity are usually sources of conflict.[6] Building the relationship, however, can help minimize conflict and build trust. Teams with trust mesh more easily, are more efficient and organized, and are better self-managed.[7] Intercultural competence helps build relationships resulting in trust and effectiveness.

I think twice about what I think I know. Sometimes when someone is unable to meet a deadline or hesitant to move forward, if you have intercultural competence, you are more aware that it might be a cultural thing. You can’t say that everyone is going to do things the exact same way. We try to focus on core things and then let people adjust it for their culture. You make team members feel valued and respected.
—Anonymous research participant

Putting Intercultural Competence into Action

Just like with anything of value, successful global virtual teams are developed with thoughtfulness. To gain the synergistic advantages of global virtual teams, intercultural competence must be leveraged. The following bullet points are key aspects toward putting intention into building team member intercultural competence. Additionally, secondary research learning on how to enhance global virtual team effectiveness is shared.

Intercultural Competence Training

  • Develop and administer company-wide intercultural training programs.
  • Hire an intercultural trainer or consultant for new teams.[8]
  • Send team members to participate in external intercultural training programs.[9]
  • Make additional readings[10] on Intercultural Competence available to interested employees.

Fundamental Actions for all Virtual Teams

Everything that goes wrong with in-the-same-place teams also plagues virtual teams—only worse.”[11] As global virtual teams encompass even more complexity, adhering to these tips are necessary to minimize potential challenges.

Intercultural Competence for Team Leaders

Team Selection: Use intercultural competence as one criterion as part of team selection. Do this by incorporating a global virtual team selection questionnaire/tool*, such as the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire, that measures the degree of one’s intercultural competence.

Cultural Awareness: Use the first five minutes of each global virtual team interaction to allow a team member to share something unique from their culture. Focus on sharing similarities and differences. Keep rotating through team members for the duration of the team. Ideally the sharing should transition from superficial cultural aspects to more personal and behavioral aspects. Make intercultural competence a topic of team discussion

Conflict Management: Be cognizant that different cultures manage conflict differently. For example, a one-on-one phone conversation may be more appropriate to resolving an issue than a more public, direct, and confrontational technique. Always be sure to explain why one approach was selected over another.

Rewards: Reward team members for their intercultural skills that contribute toward effectiveness.

Team Participation: Create space to include less outspoken members. Be aware of differences in cultures regarding participation and inclusion needs.

Patience: Practice patience and ask for clarification in regards to accents or language barriers.

*Resources: Multicultural Personality Questionnaire (no longer accessible), Global Team Process Questionnaire, Intercultural Development Inventory (no longer accessible)

Global Virtual Team Formation:

  • First Meeting: If possible, all team members should meet face-to-face in the beginning to start building trust and relationships and to define the team process. Both task-focused and social time should be scheduled.
  • Team Bios: In cases where meeting face-to-face is cost prohibitive, ask team members to share bios that include cultural information and individual photographs. In this case, spend extra time building relationships through social exchanges.
  • Clear Purpose and Objectives: During the formation meetings, the team purpose and objectives should be clearly defined, and governance guidelines must be set regarding how to make decisions. To further engage members and drive team commitments, all members should be included in discussions about team structure.
  • Team Building: Trust is a vital element to all teams and especially to virtual ones. Use team building exercises to foster trust (ideally face-to-face).
  • Occasional Face-to-Face Time: Try to meet face-to-face at several intervals for the duration of the virtual team. Include a combination of social and task-focused time. These meetings make all the difference in more efficient task outcomes.

When working with cultures who do not talk a lot, global virtual teamwork can be painful. Also, if there is lack of structure, culture differences play a bigger role and intercultural skills become more important.—Anonymous research participant

Structure:

  • Advanced Preparation: For all meetings, send agendas and all relevant documents in advance. Thus team members have time to review and absorb the material beforehand, and they can come prepared with questions and concerns.
  • Document: Ensure that all key ideas and decisions are recorded during virtual meetings. Meeting notes aid in understanding when language barriers are a concern.
  • Set Boundaries: Different cultures require varying degrees of relationship building prior to task orientation; therefore, establish clear boundaries and time for relationship building during virtual meetings

Communication:

  • Open-ended Questions: People are more engaged and committed when others are curious and good listeners. Members can model curiosity by asking open-ended questions, that is, questions that call for more than just a yes or no answer. Practice listening skills by allowing time for members to complete their thoughts.
  • Engaged Sounds and Reflected Understanding: Team members can also express their interest and understanding through engaged sounds/actions (nodding, saying yes) and reflected understanding (rephrasing what team members heard at the conclusion of another member’s communication).
  • Unscheduled Interaction: Team members should be encouraged to contact each other outside of scheduled team calls (socially and professionally) to deepen rapport and relationships.
  • Frequent Communication: A high frequency of communication helps generate and sustain momentum. For example, teams that conduct weekly virtual calls should have members exchange daily team emails and use instant messaging to help communication flow and facilitate task completion.

Conclusion

Many organizations have caught on to global virtual teams. However, global virtual teams will only be successful if these teams are properly used and demonstrate effectiveness. In a time when our world is becoming more and more globally connected, it is important to consider the cultural dynamics related to virtual teaming. To truly gain the advantages of both global virtual teamwork and diversity, a thoughtful deliberate approach is required.

Trusting relationships in a disciplined structured environment is essential to the success of global virtual teams. These relationships are built through increased team member intercultural competence. Building trusting relationships is a differentiator that keeps people motivated, engaged, and committed. When cultural diversity is part of the equation, building trusting relationships means being open-minded, curious, and accepting of others’ differences. Too often, short-term goals supersede the importance of human relations. If culturally inclusive relationship building is prioritized, the effectiveness of global virtual teams will be enhanced.


[1] B.S. Bell, S.W.J Kozlowski, “A Typology of Virtual Teams: Implications for Effective Leadership,” Group & Organization Management, 27, no. 1 (2002): 14–49.

[2] The study involved 56 participants from 27 organizations with globally dispersed offices or partners that employed global virtual teams. These included Fortune 500 companies in technology, software, energy, food, and pharmaceuticals; a startup technology business; research organizations; education organizations; an entertainment firm; advertising and public relations firms; an international law firm; a world finance institution; a nonprofit focused on micro financing; individual consulting firms; and Pepperdine University. Due to the general and varied nature of participants, this research is intended to be transferable to many organizational settings.

The study used a mixed-methods approach to gather quantitative and qualitative data using the Multicultural Personality Questionnaire, the Virtual Team Effectiveness Survey, and one-on-one interviews. A correlation analysis was conducted on quantitative data, while qualitative data was themed and counted. For further details and information about this research, please contact the author at .

[3] M.R. Hammer, M.J. Bennett, and R. Wiseman, “Measuring Intercultural Sensitivity: The Intercultural Development Inventory,” International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, no. 4 (2003): 421–443.

[4]J.R. Katzenbach, D.K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization (2nd. ed.), (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).

[5] J. Lipnack, J. Stamps, Virtual Team: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology, (2nd. ed.), (New York: Wiley, 2000).

[6] M. Oertig, T. Buergi, “The Challenges of Managing Cross-Cultural Virtual Project Teams,” Team Performance Management, 12, nos. 1/2 (2006): 23–30.

[7] J. Lipnack, J. Stamps, Virtual Team: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology, (2nd. ed.), (New York: Wiley, 2000).

[8]TMC, http://www.tmcorp.com/; Charis Intercultural Training Corporation, http://www.chariscorp.com/. (n0 longer accessible).

[9]Intercultural Communication Institute, http://www.intercultural.org/; The Intercultural Institute, http://www.intercultural.org/.

[10] Read about various intercultural frameworks and models: Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Behaviors, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations, (2nd. ed.), (Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc., 2003); Fons Trompennars, Riding The Waves of Culture: Understanding Diversity in Global Business, (2nd. ed.), (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997); and Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture, (New York: Anchor Books, 1976).

[11] J. Lipnack, J. Stamps, Virtual Team: People Working Across Boundaries with Technology, (2nd. ed.), (New York: Wiley, 2000).

About the Author(s)

David Callen, MSOD, is the first place winner of the First Annual Graziadio School Student Paper Competition presented by the Graziadio Schoool of Business and Management and the Graziadio Business Report. He completed a Master of Science in the Organization Development Program in August 2008. Callen was most recently a media supervisor for Universal McCann, where he worked on their Microsoft account supervising a team of five that specialized in all forms of digital media. His previous education includes studying the Middle Eastern peace process at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a BA in Organizational Studies from the University of Michigan. He has traveled and lived in over 23 countries and currently resides in the San Francisco Bay area.