Do maps influence our language and how we judge our teammates?

Take a good look at the world map below? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you lose perspective?  Generally people feel distressed when they see this projection of the world map for the first time. Does Europe seem tiny and insignificant through this view?

Map 1: Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection, South Up

What about this one? What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you look at Map 2?

Map 2: Hobo Dyer Equal Area Projection, North Up

My first thought was, “Wow Africa is huge!”

Being brought up in the southern hemisphere, I have often felt that I am always most at ease when meeting others from the south. I have often queried that.  What is it about them that makes me feel so comfortable? We might come from different parts of the world entirely, Chile, South Africa, Australia and yet there is something that connects us. What could it be? Could it be related to how we were brought up viewing the world and therefore our position in this world?

Many of us were brought up with a skewed perspective of the world. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. At school we used the traditional, “Mercator” map below. As you can see, Melbourne is at the very bottom… you need to look hard to find it.

Map 3: Mercator projection

You’ll likely recognise the projection of  map 3 above, it’s the projection used by Google and other internet map providers[1]. It was created by the navigator Gerardus Mercator in 1569 as a guide to sailors to navigate the globe. Apparently it is still extremely useful for navigation purposes. However the world is a globe and it is very hard to project a globe onto a flat piece of paper, without distorting it. On the Mercator projection, you can see that Greenland looks bigger than Australia and Africa. In fact Australia is about three times the area of Greenland and Africa about 14 times the size of Greenland.

So let’s go back to map 1.

Map 1: Hobo Dyer Equal Projection, South Up

Ah… I love this map. Look at that, Melbourne uppermost centre… now I feel on top of the world:) There seems to be so much more water with this perspective. Of course this map is also not completely accurate as no flat surface can accurately project a globe, but this map does show the correct size of the countries.

Different perspectives offer different insights. How would our image of ourselves change if we were brought up looking at maps with our country always in the centre?

And yes, south can be up…  This “north is always up” perspective of the world does not only influence our image of ourselves (and others) but it also influences our language.  “I’m heading down south, I’m heading up north”. What about the negative connotations related to the south, such as, “My computer is only one month old, and it’s already gone south.” Why is south negative? Is it because we always look at maps that depict south to be at the bottom, and the bottom of the earth is not a pleasant place to be? In the Catholic Middle Ages of course the bottom of the earth referred to hell and evil.

So what do maps have to do with High-Performing Culturally Diverse Teams? We should never underestimate how important it is when working with people of other backgrounds to take the time to look at every situation through their perspective. I realise that statement can seem banal, but the way each one of us views the world, influences the way we see ourselves and the way we perceive (and probably judge) others in relation to that. This in turn impacts the way we behave and communicate with them. Do we speak in a patronising way when we speak to a person who comes from a country that on our map view seems insignificant? Are we more confident when communicating with people whom we perceive as being similar to us according to our map view?  Is there a natural connection or bond that allows us to be ourselves and show more confidence when interacting with these people? Where we position ourselves is central to how we view others and therefore how we behave, communicate and are accepted, or not, by others.

How do you feel your view of the world has influenced your communication and image of yourself?

[1] “The Mercator Projection was originally designed for nautical navigation by keeping lines of latitude perpendicular to lines of longitude. Land areas are distorted and the distortion increases nearer the poles, making countries in very low or very high latitudes look bigger than they really are.” Source: www.philmikejones.me & “Seeing Through Maps”, Wood, Kaiser and Abrahams, 2006 by ODT.

Team Culture – Europe is getting back into motion – Now is the time to realign and create the Culture the team can thrive in.

Europe is slowly opening up after the COVID-19 lockdown. After weeks of isolation people are finally allowed to go out for a walk, factories are re-starting their production machines and office employees will soon be starting back.  

Each team member has had their own difficult situations to overcome; some have had to share home office with kids who have been doing home-schooling, others who usually love being active are feeling claustrophobic at not being able to exert themselves in the gym or on a long outdoor bike ride. Maybe over the last few weeks work has not always been foremost on their minds.  Now is the ideal time to “re-align” and create or revise your team culture. Many of us have been obliged recently to contemplate what matters to us most. What are our values, whether at home or at work.

Culture is often overlooked by leaders because it can seem too abstract. Actually, it’s quite concrete once we sit down and discuss it with our team. A strong team culture creates cohesion, pride, team spirit, accountability, open communication, inclusion, productivity and therefore a high-performing team. Creating a team culture is the way to bring that cohesion and team spirit back to the forefront if it is has slipped a bit during lockdown.

What are we referring to when we say culture? Culture is a set of norms accepted and encouraged by the group; acceptable ways of behaving, communicating and getting things done, for example:

  1. What is the acceptable way that our group gives feedback to one another or?
  2. How do we move forward with a risky decision?  Do we plan and wait until we are more “certain” or jump and “fail fast”.
  3. How do we disagree? Is it acceptable to disagree openly with another teammate in a group meeting and encourage constructive conflict or is that rather frowned upon?
  4. What is a productive way for us as a team to make decisions?
  5. How do we problem-solve when we have little time on our hands, etc.

There are different methods of creating your team culture. What is essential is that it be created by the team, not a few individuals or leaders. Below is a 4-step activity you can start with, there are obviously other methods. This exercise can be done face-to-face or virtually. If you plan to do it virtually then consider planning 4 short sessions rather than one long session. If you do the below 4-step activity you need to invest time in the discussion part of the activity (step 2). Give every team member the opportunity to express themselves and allow for possible introverts to have their say about how they also envision the team functioning well. The important message here is that it is the team that creates the culture it believes in. You’ll need to discuss common values and therefore have every member speak up. This could be difficult on a virtual culturally diverse team, so prepare well for that moderation hurdle.

Step 1: Plot a Culture Map

Each team member plots themselves on a Culture Map along 4 scales related to behaviour or communication. Each scale shows  each team member’s preference (see sample culture map below). The four scales can be varied, but those that create strong discussions often are:

  1. How you build trust and manage conflict
  2. Problem Solving techniques
  3. Decision making – do you feel the need to be involved or not
  4. How you deal with uncertainty / risk taking,

Once everyone is plotted it is more obvious to see similarities and differences between team members. Remember, differences can be complementary and can enhance creativity and problem solving solutions, therefore don’t play them down.

Team Culture Map

Step two: This is the most essential part of the exercise. Do not skip it. This is the time for discussion. Let’s zoom in on scale 1 above and use it as an example:

Team Communication Preferences

Ask each person to discuss their preferences according to what they plotted. In the above example, which looks at communication and how we give feedback or disagree, Elena might come across to Emmanuel as being domineering or aggressive. She may not realise it. You could probably discuss here what the benefits are of having somebody always play devil’s advocate and on the other hand discuss how important it might be with clients to have colleagues who steer away from conflict, such as Emmanuel. Consider how team behaviour might differ according to what Elena’s role is. If she is the leader of the team it might come across differently compared to if she is not. You might discuss what conflict actually means to the individuals. For some it could mean saying, “I think your plan is really inefficient and our client will hate it.” This could come across as quite aggressive for some Asian cultures. For others, conflict could be as simple as a gentle disagreement. Another topic to discuss here is when (if ever) do the individuals feel comfortable disagreeing; do they need a relationship of trust before being able to disagree?

This discussion is the heart of the workshop. Each person openly speaks about what their preference is.   Each scale needs to be discussed and once you complete the discussion of each scale move to step 3. If you do this as a virtual workshop you may prefer to do one complete scale from step 1 to step 4 during each virtual session.

Step three: Discuss a strategy to be more efficient (if necessary) thereby creating your ideal team culture.  For the above scale, your discussion could start with:

  1. How can we come up with good ideas and exchanges in the future and get everyone involved, including those who don’t like conflict?
  2. How do we create more open/transparent discussions within the team?
  3. How can we make sure everyone on the team is listened to, both the risk-takers and the risk-averse even though some of them have stated they don’t like to enter conflict?
  4. How can this knowledge help us run more productive meetings?

Step four: Once the points in step 3 are agreed to by all members, write your team charter. These are the “behaviour and norms” you will follow as a team according to what was discussed in step 3. It is important to write them somewhere where the whole team has access to them so you can occasionally go back to them. They can be used for example before starting a meeting or after a few months when some points seem to have been forgotten.

The Team Charter should be “Our Culture”: Not yours, not mine, but ours. It is a culture in which each team member thinks: “I feel comfortable working here because my values are appreciated. I feel I can be myself and therefore it brings out the best of me.”