Cultural stereotypes can kill remote teams

Aug 13 2013 by Wayne Turmel Print This Article

When I talk to people about leading virtual teams and running effective remote meetings, the question of culture, especially national and regional culture, often arises. The questions are often things like: "Well what do you do about getting these people (they usually mean Asian, especially Chinese, but you probably have someone specific in mind) to participate and contribute more in meetings?" The question is well-intentioned, but inherently dangerous.

While it's important to recognize that certain cultures do have certain tendencies, you don't want to slip over the line to stereotype and miss what's really happening. A common example is during a teleconference or webmeeting when you ask, "are there any questions" and all you hear from the team in Gonzhong is silence. Maybe they are deferring to authority, as your diversity training has told you. Maybe they think you're an idiot and don't want to call you out in front of everyone. There's a major difference.

In his book, Fish Can't See Water: How National Culture Can Make or Break Your Corporate Strategy, author Kai Hammerich talks about this. Hammrich is based in London, and is a consultant with the international search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. He's been nominated by BusinessWeek as one of the most influential search experts in the world.

He has 14 Golden Rules for Westerners (who he defines as linear active and multi-active) and Asian cultures (generally reactive - his term). They're well worth examining:

  1. Speech is to promote harmony
  2. Good listening is important
  3. Never interrupt
  4. Never confront
  5. Never disagree openly
  6. Never cause anyone to lose face
  7. Suggestions, especially criticism, should be indirect
  8. Be ambiguous, so as to leave options open
  9. Prioritize diplomacy over the cold truth
  10. Follow the rules, but interpret them flexibly
  11. Utilize networks
  12. Don't rush or pressure people who prefer to work this way. Do things at the appropriate time
  13. Observe fixed power distances and hierarchy
  14. Work hard at building trust

As I look at this list, I notice a couple of things. First, while one or two things might appear odd to rocket-propelled Westerners (diplomacy over bluntness? - wimps!) for the most part, it's just common sense for us to use in any working relationship. When should we NOT listen, after all?

Where things get dangerous is when we let these general cultural norms cross the line to stereotype. Because people tend not to speak up in public settings, don't assume "they" are passive or don't care and not ask for their opinions or input. Just because people are reticent to respond as you would, doesn't mean they don't have value to add. Maybe you're not trying to get it the right way.

What this list tells us is that we need to carefully examine our team's responses and interaction. We need to examine, not just their reactions to our leadership, but our own leadership behavior. Just as in any working relationship, it's critical to understand someone's default way of looking at the world, then find ways to work together to get things done. This requires both introspection and actively seeking feedback from people who may see what we can't.

Fish might not be able to see water, but they can probably see when we are messing up better than we can.

Next time, I'll look more closely at what people mean when they say "culture" and how can we work more effectively across borders, both seen and unseen.

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About The Author

Wayne Turmel
Wayne Turmel

For almost 30 years, Wayne Turmel has been obsessed with how people communicate - or don't - at work. He has spent the last 20 years focused on remote and virtual work, recognized as one of the top 40 Remote Work Experts in the world. Besides writing for Management Issues, he has authored or co-authored 15 books, including The Long-Distance Leader and The Long-Distance Teammate. He is the lead Remote and Hybrid Work subject matter expert for the The Kevin Eikenberry Group. Originally from Canada, he now makes his home in Las Vegas, US.