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Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.