The challenges of international management

Managing a virtual team

Does your team work all over the world and in different time zones? For example, the technicians are located in India, the project leaders in Germany, France and the US, and the manager, i.e. you, in the Netherlands. If this is the case, you are possibly working together daily, but have never all met in person.  

Different backgrounds and languages within a team may lead to misunderstandings – maybe even serious ones. To create a sense of solidarity within an international team is challenging, but also key to achieving a successful  collaboration. So, how to go about it?

The advantages
Quite often it is only the disadvantages of long-distance management that are discussed, but if we are prepared to change management methods, there are undoubtedly advantages:

  • Working internationally stimulates flexibility and increases availability. If the work is divided among people in different time zones, a project can be worked on 24/7.
  • Working virtually is a good cost-saving method, particularly where travel expenses are concerned.
  • If bridging cultural differences is successful, working with different cultures is both motivating and enriching. It offers the opportunity to share best practices, to discover new working methods, and to expand personal insights.

The challenges
Managing a virtual team is a challenge. Communication is more difficult because of the different languages involved and the lack of personal contact and non-verbal communication. This leads to a more extended and less noticeable risk of misunderstandings than would be the case in traditional teams and may result in conflict.

Because of the distance it may be hard to create a sincere team spirit with reciprocal support, friendships and connections. Team members may feel isolated or frustrated. Therefore it is of the utmost importance that they are independent and able to motivate themselves.

Four tips and keys to success

It should always be kept in mind that managing a team from afar is harder than managing a traditional team. Also remember that, although new principles have been put in place, old habits die hard. Motivating people to achieve a communal goal and building trust are therefore of crucial importance. But how to do this?

  1. Adjusting management style
    In some cultures people expect their managers to have direct control, which is impossible in international management. In the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for example, the management role is one of facilitator. This working method is not suitable for virtual teams either and may lead to misunderstanding and incorrect interpretation.
    The ideal situation consists of the right balance between these two management styles , where a manager takes the lead and inspires trust, but also trusts others to delegate to co-workers.
  2. Giving attention to communication style
    In order to manage international teams effectively, an explicit communication style is what is required. The manager should explain everything clearly and in detail. It is key that everyone understands what the common goals are, what tasks need to be executed, who does what, who needs to be informed, by whom, how often, and how.
    To avoid confusion the manager is therefore obliged to give perfectly straightforward instructions.
  3. Guiding cultural differences
    When dealing with a multicultural virtual team, most likely another issue will surface: notions about time, hierarchy, dealing with conflict, communication, etc., may vary culturally.
    When a German project leader sets his or her Indian team members a deadline for software delivery, he or she should be aware of all cultural factors that may put meeting the deadline at risk. Something that works well in one culture could be seen as inappropriate in another. As these differences may lead to misunderstanding and irritation, it is important to acquire knowledge about the team members’ cultures and come to mutual agreement on working methods. After all, the objective is to execute the project collaboratively and to create among team members a kind of common culture based on synergy and contribution.
    Taking into account cultural differences, new rules should be drawn up regarding: Decision making, Communication style and method, Deadline management, Feedback.
    The possible consequences of non-compliance with these rules should also be clearly stated. As working interculturally does not leave any room for doubts, it has to be obvious who has which role. With everyone aware of the rules,  it is up to the manager to check if they are actually followed.
  4. Organizing virtual meetings
    Even if everything seems to be progressing nicely, having regular video conferences is essential to team building. The manager should focus on what is going well and aim for a positive team spirit. Group achievements could and should be celebrated. These virtual meetings should offer opportunities to share experiences and discuss problems. They could also simply serve as a possibility to have a chat, just as traditional team members have their water cooler conversations. All this will be in aid of creating a group sense and providing a stable working relationship. When team member know each other better, even though they are unable to meet in person, it will result in more trust, a true team spirit, and greater success.

About the author – Marietta Lenz 
Since 1990, Marietta has lived and worked in several countries. Her home is now in the Netherlands, but she also frequently works in Germany, Belgium and other European countries.

After graduating she started her professional career as a trainer of Russian, business German, and cultural awareness. In the meantime she has become a well-respected and experienced consultant, specialized in intercultural management, leadership and personal development.

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