Intercultural management: managing teams across borders and cultures (II)

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Small incidents or deficiencies can have unforeseen consequences when managing at a distance.

If you read the previous episode, you may be wondering: did Benoit get his report on time?

The short answer is yes…and no.

Benoit received a document around lunchtime Friday in Paris that did not live up to his expectations. Moreover, the following Monday morning, water cooler gossip suggested that there were some grumblings within his team. Benoit was not happy with these developments; in his mind, direct reports are supposed to provide solutions, not cause him more problems.

What had happened?

After receiving Benoit’s email, our San Franciscan – let’s call him Steve – waited for a day or so hoping he would hear from Günter about the report on Widget 913. He did not. Steve also emailed Benoit, his boss, to ask for some clarifications about the context of the report (remember, Steve, as an American, is from a low context culture; it is difficult for him to operate in a vacuum). Benoit did not reply.

Steve’s stress level was starting to rise: he felt great responsibility for getting this report done, needed to collaborate with others on his team to do so, and reacted to all this email silence negatively. When he finally emailed Günter and Michelle, he did not notice to what extent his frustration and feeling of being let down transpired in his words.

Günter, as the senior member of the team, was furious. Benoit had not informed him directly about his request. Moreover, he had given this “Steve” responsibility for coordinating it. And now Steve was “demanding” his collaboration without clearly explaining what he needed and why. Protocol had not been respected, Günter felt offended and concerned about his status within the company. He was certainly in no mood to be forthcoming and cooperative. He eventually sent off some interim data about Widget 913 a few days before the report was due.

Michelle, on the other hand, was in a panic. As the newest member of the team, she felt a need to prove herself constantly. But she knew preciously little about Widget 913, a project that had started many years before she had joined the company. None of the colleagues she had befriended in her office could shed any light on it either. After a few sleepless nights, she concluded it was safer not to respond rather than to admit to her lack of useful knowledge. After all, her boss Benoit had not asked her to participate and Steve was far away.

Steve thus spent 3 days and nights painfully assembling a report as best he could with the information he had on hand. He bemoaned the lack of team playing skills and cooperation of his foreign colleagues and started to fall into the trap of cultural stereotypes. He emailed the report to Benoit around 10 PM Friday night San Francisco time explaining as delicately as he could given his state of mind the lack of cooperation he encountered from Günter and Michelle. He expected to receive a response and feedback from Benoit when he logged onto his email the following Monday morning.

Before this episode, this GVT suffered from a lack of team identity and shared culture. They had never met as a group nor determined collectively the best practices they needed to respect in order to work effectively together.

At this juncture, this GVT is mired in petty unspoken conflict that, if left unresolved, will continue to plague its performance and that of each of its members. Mutual trust and respect needs to be restored.

Until next time,

Lokahi & Quill


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