Building Trust in Virtual Teams

 Introduction 

There are three major points that all teams must manage well:

Communication - This is extremely important. Members must be very clear when writing e-mails, posting to threaded discussions, or teleconferencing.  Be aware of the “netiquette” rules when communicating (i.e.- typing in all capitals indicates yelling, ending a question with more then one question mark indicates anger, sarcasm or impatience). However, the rules and strategies for internet communication are well-documented elsewhere. For the purpose of this article, I will discuss the impact of communication across cultures. Cultural Understanding – Culture has many different definitions, depending upon the environment in which it is applied. For the purpose of this article, I will be discussing the culture of business interactions on a virtual and global level. Establishing very clear goals and objectives – A goal is a broad statement of purpose. There should be a series of objectives for each goal that include WHO (the specific people who will take action), WHAT (the intent of the objective), and WHEN (specific times for Who to accomplish WHAT). Goals should be specific and realistic, attainable and measurable, have completion deadlines. Having clear goals make you focus.

Communication and Culture

 When partnerships emanate from different cultures (global, national and organizational), the cultural differences in communication can create hurdles (Kim, 1991; Mohr & Nevin, 1990). It can be influenced by the fit between national and organizational cultures (Fox, 1997; Li, 1999), as well as by the cultural diversity of members and ownership structure of the relationship.

When business partners come from very different national cultural backgrounds interact, inconsistencies in communication may result in communication weaknesses, hampering performance. An understanding of national culture provides some understanding relating to expected behavior in a variety of situations, including communication (Hofstede & Bond, 1988; Moon, 1996). Differences in organizational cultures can lead to miscommunications and the deterioration of joint efforts (Veiga, Lubatkin, Calori, & Very, 2000).

As no two cultures are identical, negotiation of communication and cultural protocols must occur (Kim, 1991). A new, unique communication environment must be created within the partnerships involved. Casmir (1999) indicates that protocols, appropriateness, monitoring, and feedback mechanisms must all be dynamically adjusted, thus suggesting not only communication interaction, but also cultural interaction.

The example of the partnership among Asahi Glass of Japan, the Samsung Group of Korea, and Corning Glass International of the United States is a good illustration. Asahi Glass and Samsung stressed collectivism and harmony in their communications, but Corning focused on formalities and the achievement of specific goals. The result was that the two Asian companies facilitated their teaming together, to the exclusion of Corning. Thus ended the original joint venture. 

Cultural Understanding

 According to Edgar Schein (1996), there are three types of culture evidence that exist in all organizations:

Artifacts – The physical, visible, audible, and tactile evidence of underlying cultural assumptions. This includes such things as behavior that can be seen (“This is the way we do this”), the physical environment (who get’s an office? who get’s a cubical?) and the standards of behavior (dress codes, preferred parking). Artifacts also include shared stories, and myths. Shared values – The reasons why things should be as they are. Such things as codes of ethics, company value statements, mission statements and vision are considered shared values. Basic assumptions – They comprise the invisible but identifiable reasons why group members perceive, think, and feel the way they do about external survival and internal operational issues, such as a mission, means of problem solving, relationships, time, and space.

Heenan & Perlmutter (1979) contend that global corporations can be operationally classified as:

Home Country Oriented – They operate independently and autonomously and focus on local objectives. Regionally Oriented – They operate interdependently within a limited area and focus on regional issues. Globally Oriented – They operate interdependently worldwide, with worldwide objectives and extensive cultural diversity. Cultural Dimensions

            Richard D. Lewis (2001), in his book When Cultures Collide, contends that the national and regional cultures of the world can be generally classified into the following three groups:

 Linear-Active: These cultures consist of task-oriented, highly organized planners. They are introverted, quiet, patient and mind their own business. They must operate with timetables and schedules. They dislike losing face. Examples of linear-active cultures are Germans, Swiss, Austrians, Scandinavians, and Caucasian Americans.

Multi-Active: Members of these cultures are people-oriented and are extroverted. Time has a little meaning. They will arrive late, then over-run meetings. They are change plans abruptly. They tend to interrupt and confront emotionally. Some examples of multi-active cultures are Spanish, southern Italians and many Mediterranean cultures. Reactive: These cultures are similar to the linear-active cultures, with some exceptions. Where linear-active cultures are job-oriented, reactive cultures are people oriented. They will take statements as promises and adapt to their partner’s timetable. Some examples of reactive cultures are Japan, China, Turkey, and Finland.

Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner (2001) look at culture from the aspect of how “problem solving” occurs. They define culture as “the way a group of people solve problems and reconcile dilemmas” (p. 32). They define seven value dimensions that shape how a culture approaches problem solving:

 Universalism versus Particularism: standardization and rules vs. adaptability.

Communitarianism versus Individualism: Do people consider themselves as individuals or part of a group? Neutral versus Emotional: Do people contain their emotions or express them freely? Defuse versus Specific: Do people see their life as segments, each unique unto itself or do they see their life segments as parts of a whole? Achievement versus Ascription: Do people value social position or do they value performance? Human-time relationship: Do people value short-term or long-term success? Human-nature relationship: Do people view themselves as part of nature or as masters of nature?

Geert Hofstede (1980) found differences existed in four dimensions that were typical for each country. These dimensions are:

Power distance – the extent to which the less powerful accept power distributed unequally. Individualism – Does the society values the good of the few or the good of the many? Masculinity – The extent to which social gender roles are distinct within a society. Uncertainty avoidance – The extent to which a society feels threatened by the unknown.

Trust in Teams

            People’s sense of trust is embodied in every interaction with each other. It cannot be “designed into” an organizational culture. It is built, layer-by-layer, through shared experiences. A project team does not have these patterns to build upon and therefore starts its project without established patterns of trust. Many researchers feel that trust is main foundation of successful teams (Bennett, 1996; Hart & Saunders, 1997).

        Today’s virtual project teams are disadvantaged because they generally do not have the benefit of face-to-face interaction. Therefore, the building of organizational trust is impeded by cultural and communication difficulties, especially at the global level. Trust then must be built by frequent interaction, shared information, and the development of a joint organizational culture (Badaracco, 1991; Bennett, 1996).

Conclusions

           These scholars and others have recognized that each culture, including our own, has its own unique characteristics that function as a “moral compass” guiding the way they meet the challenges of life. To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway, it is critical that all virtual partners seek “not to judge, but to understand” and use this understanding to help all partners to establish clear goals and objectives, to communicate a commitment that is highly relevant to each member, to encourage compromise on less important issues and to clearly understand and accept the rules and procedures of the organization.

Recommendation

This suggests the following course of action when preparing your organization for global partnerships:

Enlist outside experts to help you establish an honest assessment of the cultural identity of your individual group. Impartial third parties offer the best opportunity for an unbiased review. (It is almost impossible to “see our selves as others see us”.) Encourage/require your potential global partners to also enlist outside experts to help them establish an honest assessment of the cultural identity of their individual group, for the same reasons. Each group then captures their vision of the other groups’ cultural profile and, more importantly, the reasons why “that group thinks and acts the way they do.” At this point, a joint meeting of the groups must be held. Ideally, it would be a “face-to-face”, but could be held virtually or by closed-circuit television. The impartial third party, supported by senior management of both groups, would present objective findings. (Hopefully, all could recognize their prejudices, and proceed to plan accordingly.) Proceed to jointly develop the combine teams goals, objectives and long-term plan.

REFERENCES:

Badaracco, J. (1991). The Knowledge Link: How Firms Compete Through Strategic Alliances, Harvard Business School Press, Boston. pp.129-146

Bennett, J. (1996). Building Relationships for Technology Transfer, Communications ofthe ACM (39:9) pp35-36

Casmir, F. (1999). Foundations for the study of intercultural communication based on a third-culture building model. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23(1), 91-116.

Fox, C. (1997).  The authenticity of intercultural communication. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 21(1), 85–103. 

Hart, P. & Saunders, C. (1997).  Power and Trust: Critical Factors in the Adoption anduse of Electronic Data Interchange. Organizational Science (8:1), pp. 23-42

Hofstede, G. (1980). Culture’s consequences: Comparing values, behaviors, institutions, and organizations across nations (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

 Hofstede, G., & Bond, M. (1988). Culture’s consequences: International differences in work-related values. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage. 

Heenan, D., & Perlmutter, H. (1979). The regional headquarters division: Acomparative analysis. Academy of Management Journal, 22(2), 410-415.

 Kim, Y. Y. (1991). Intercultural communication competence: a systems-theoretic view.In S. Ting-Toomey & F. Korzenny (Eds.), Intercultural communication competence, international and intercultural communications annual. NewburyPark, CA: Sage.

 Lewis, R. D. (2001). When cultures collide. London:  Nicholas Brealey. Li, H. (1999). Communicating information in conversations: A cross-culturalcomparison. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23(3), 387-409.

 Mohr, J., & Nevin, J. (1990). Communication strategies in marketing channels: Atheoretical perspective. Journal of Marketing, 54(4), 36-51.

 Moon, D. G. (1996). Concepts of culture: Implications for intercultural communicationResearch. Communication Quarterly, 44(1), 70-84. 

Schein, E. (1996a). Culture: The missing concept in organizational studies.Administrative Science Quarterly, 41(2), 229-240. Schein, E. (1996b). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass  Trompenaars, F., & Hampden-Turner, C. (2001). When cultures collide. New York:McGraw Hill.

 Veiga, J., Lubatkin, M., Calori, R., & Very, P. (2000). Measuring organizational cultureclashes: A two-nation post-hoc analysis of a cultural compatibility index. Human Relations, 53(4), 539-557.

Dr. Dale Mancini