Managing Conflict in Global Teams

4 Keys to leveraging cultural differences in diverse teams.

“Which teams are more effective: highly diverse teams or more homogenous teams?” is a question I pose when I begin working with a new a team. The quick response from the team is always the same: highly diverse teams. The real answer may surprise you…

THE CHALLENGE

Research shows that highly diverse teams and global teams offer many benefits to organizations, including more innovation in product development and service delivery, more creative solutions to problems, reduced potential for groupthink, and even significantly higher financial performance. However, research also suggests that team diversity brings with it a greater likelihood of relationship conflict, which, in turn, can lead to poor performance and, in extreme cases, team dysfunction. To leverage the benefits of diversity, organizations must prepare global teams to manage conflict successfully.

ORGANIZATIONAL FACTORS

Organizations can take several actions to maximize the benefits of diverse teams and minimize the destructive effects of relationship conflict:

1. Create a culture that truly values differences. There are several ways organizations demonstrate their support of differences. The most obvious way is by designing and utilizing internal systems that seek to increase employee diversity through hiring and retention. Once put in place, these systems most often focus on managing differences in the workplace relating to age, race, religion, gender, disabilities, and ethnicity.

While hiring and managing workplace diversity is an important starting point, organizations that have extensive international operations and employees located around the globe must exercise care: Age and race issues are viewed through the lens of national culture, and diversity training developed to address these issues in one country is unlikely to work well in a country with a different history, political system, and culture. Organizations must make it a point to help individuals and teams understand why diversity is important and how to leverage diversity to help teams make better decisions.

Global companies that truly value differences also find ways to select and develop the best talent wherever it is found. Colgate, for example, is dedicated to developing leaders who foster an inclusive work environment, and the company provides training for employees worldwide to help them build leadership skills. A leader may begin his or her career in one country, spend time managing an operation in the U.S., and later run a regional operation.

Another way organizations can create a culture that values differences is to help individuals and teams understand differences and then work effectively to bridge them. Working with global teams in a number of industries, including food and beverage, high tech, manufacturing, and pharmaceuticals, we have utilized the HBDI (Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument) to help teams understand and then leverage differences. HBDI is a psychometric tool that provides individuals and teams with a systematic way to look at differences in cognitive styles. Using individual and team reports, the HBDI works well to help teams quickly understand and appreciate how differences in cognitive styles can strengthen team performance.

2. Develop a process for forming and chartering global teams. Organizations need to develop a process for forming new teams or for ensuring that existing work teams perform at a high level. Organizational sponsors must ensure that project teams have a clear project charter that includes the sponsors, overall goals, and details on the scope of the project.

Organizations also should facilitate the development of a team charter since it has been shown to increase a team’s likelihood of becoming a highperformance team. Team charters allow team leaders to work with team members to develop a purpose or mission statement aligned with the project charter, a team vision, and team agreements. They help teams establish a safe climate, a requisite for building critical trust necessary for teams to accomplish their mission.

In addition to clarifying roles and responsibilities, charters include areas related to understanding how the team will solve problems, make decisions, communicate with one another, maintain accountability, and address conflict. For global virtual teams, the charter also should address how the team will stay in touch on an ongoing basis, specifying which technology will be used and how frequently the team will meet.

Ideally, organizations should use trained facilitators who can help the team work through the chartering process during a face-to-face teambuilding session. Best practice research indicates that face-to-face interactions help teams develop trust much more readily than impersonal virtual technology. Involving the entire team in crafting the team charter creates a high level of buy-in from team members: The set of shared values embodied in the charter creates a framework for addressing conflict.

3Offer intercultural communication training. Global team members should be skilled in communicating with individuals from different cultures. The 2015 Global Leadership Development Study conducted by i4cp, AMA, and Training magazine found that only half of the responding organizations made developing their global leaders a priority and that fewer than half of survey respondents believed that leaders demonstrated understanding of global differences in business practices or were able to establish sound relationships with diverse individuals outside their work group. Organizations should offer training that helps individuals develop the knowledge and skills to understand and value cultural differences. The training should provide an understanding of how cultural factors influence decision-making, problem solving, teamwork, and conflict. It should help members identify differences on the team, and explore how they can bridge those differences.

Since there are more than 20,000 cultures in the world, a cultural-general approach combined with a deeper dive into the cultures represented on the team is recommended. Using feedback tools, exercises, video cases, and opportunities to practice, the Institute for Cross Cultural Management advocates a four-step discovery learning approach grounded in both research and best practices:

  • Understand self (personality/cognitive styles/ culture)
  • Learn key cultural concepts related to your own culture (such as high/low context, power distance, proxemics, face)
  • Apply cultural concepts to understand similarities and differences across cultures
  • Develop cross-cultural skills to put this knowledge to work for the team

4. Offer conflict management training for individuals and teams. Addressing conflict is a challenge for any team, but especially challenging for highly diverse global teams. Different languages and cultures, working across different time zones, lack of frequent face-to-face interaction, and heavy reliance on meeting technology such as videoconferencing and e-mail present additional challenges for global teams.

Conflict management training is an important component of preparing global team members. Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan developed an approach to help individuals understand how conflict happens, assess their individual conflict responses, and develop individual conflict competence that enables them to cool down, slow down, and engage constructively with conflict partners. The Conflict Dynamics Profile (CDP) is a tool used to help team members evaluate their own behaviors during a conflict situation, and to maximize their use of constructive behaviors and minimize their use of destructive behaviors. CDP also helps individuals identify personal “hot buttons” that tend to trigger strong emotional responses. Flanagan notes that “our hot buttons are reliant on our interpretation of the situation or behavior. What’s important is that we are aware of our individual hot buttons and take steps to manage them during conflict.”

In addition to understanding hot buttons, it is important to realize that there are cultural differences in how conflict is viewed and in which responses to conflict are considered culturally appropriate. Differences in acceptable levels of directness (high and low context), individualism/collectivism, power distance, and face all affect how conflict is viewed and how it “should” be appropriately addressed.

In short, empowering teams to manage conflict by creating a culture that truly values differences, chartering global teams, and offering training in conflict management and intercultural communication can increase your organization’s ability to develop high-performance global teams.

Global Team Conflict Toolbox

Curtis D. Curry, COO of leadership development consultancy Quality Learning International, has spent the last 20 years helping global organizations develop high-performing leaders. He speaks four languages and served as director of the World Trade Institute of the Americas. Curry has an MBA and an MA in international studies and is a fellow at the Institute of Cross Cultural Management at Florida Tech. He can be reached at curtis@globalqli.com.

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