Many of us work on teams that span time zones, countries and even cultures. It's not easy to build good working relationships that way, let alone actually have some fun and a laugh or two. I was part of something, recently, that demonstrated both the power of bonding, and how rarely it actually happens.
I was teaching a class with a group of people from North and Central America (the US, Costa Rica and Mexico). It was the third session, and as people were logging on we started a conversation with one of the participants from Mexico about his weekend.
Turned out he'd plunked himself down on his sofa to watch a fútbol match with his favorite team, Los Pumas. One of the Costa Rican participants was teasing him, as he was a fan of Los Jaguars. Thus began some good-natured kidding between all the participants.
You can imagine that as a Canadian living in the US, I had very little to contribute to the conversation but let it continue since not everyone was present yet and the guys were having fun with it. Then the lone American member of the team came on the line.
All the kidding came to a halt, and there was a moment of "getting down to business" when I broke in and asked, "Jake, we're glad you're here. We have a very important question for you, and we need your input: Here it is: Pumas or Jaguars?"
The Latin Americans on the line broke up laughing, guessing (correctly) that poor Jake had no clue about Mexican fútbol. He gamely played along and we got down to work.
Now, this would have been just another unimportant encounter except for the conversations I had with some of the participants afterwards. In particular, there are two comments that stood out, and they're worth considering if you're a manager with international responsibility.
Several of the Latin American team members said that they often take part in conference calls and training with American teammates. They have learned the names of important baseball or American football teams and can even discuss them enough to be friendly. It was the first time, though, that a North American had asked them about their sport or team. They said it made them feel really welcome , an important part of the group, and helped them relax.
The American team member later told me something that was revealing. He said that he often had similar conversation with team members about American sports but had never talked about the teams or events in other countries. He felt a bit excluded from the conversation and a bit uncomfortable. He'd even done a quick Google search on the teams after the meeting just so he would know what he was talking about. Then he said, "you know, I think I know how some of them feel sometimes".
It's easy for those of us who are the "home team" to forget how difficult it can be for our teammates who work remotely to connect with us. When you are in home office, everything is done in your time zone (for convenience mostly) and the gossip is about those at HQ.
When you speak the common language (usually English) everything is conducted in English and no one questions that. The minority, at least those who are remote, usually make the necessary adjustments with few complaints.
It's also instructive to realize how just the occasional acknowledgement of that reality can impact relationships. It lets them realize that their interests are of interest to the rest of the group. That you're willing to move that meeting to a time that doesn't get them out of bed at 3 AM, and that even those in the plant in Mexico are as important as the team in London or New York. This can reap long-term results and help create relationships well out of proportion to the effort involved.
If you have to fake it, that's okay too. Feigning interest in their soccer loyalties isn't a big deal. Do you really think they care about the Cubs, the Yankees or Man-U?
Except the Chicago Blackhawks. Everyone loves the Blackhawks. Right?