Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Being successful in global teams - Role of cultural dimensions

Raj was a hardworking kid from one of the small towns in India. He was a bright kid and consistently used to come top in his class. He joined one of the prestigious engineering colleges after his school. He scored high marks there also. He had a keen interest in programming and got selected in a multi national software company starting their operations in India.
Raj was very happy on the day he was first assigned on a project. It was one of the flagship products of the company and he is going to work on a distributed virtual team along with their US and Europe teams.  The only concern he had was being the only member from India in the team.  But he was clear that he don’t want to let that opportunity pass.
Things started going wrong for Raj from the first team meeting itself.  First a roadblock on his way to office delayed joining the conference call with his team by five minutes. Raj had checked in some code the night before on request from a senior developer which broke the entire build. To make things worse, there was a product demo on the same day which had to be delayed as the build was failing.  He called out in the meeting that he was not aware of the demo and he checked in because the senior developer asked him. To his disappointment, his lead didn’t agree with him and told his very clearly that it was he who is owner of that part and he shouldn’t shy away from taking the ownership.
From there, it was a downward journey for Raj. One issue after another popped up.  In six months, Raj who was once a hard working, motivated person became a demotivated soul who was scared to make any contribution to the project.
It's interesting to see what went wrong here? Even though every one in the team wanted to do the right thing, the perception of what is the right thing was completely different from person to person. For Raj, the right thing was to follow what a more experienced person asks him to do, for his lead it was Raj’s responsibility to say no to his senior developer if he was not sure of the changes.  So if you are working on a global team, how would you know what behavious is valued by your global team members? Interestingly there are not many organizations which teaches about this cultural aspect when they form global teams.
One tool that might help you to know how the values of team member affect their behavior is Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory. Geert Hofstede's theory of cultural dimensions explains how society's culture decides the values of its members and in turn their behavior.  Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory proposed four dimensions to measure this: individualism-collectivism; uncertainty avoidance; power distance (strength of social hierarchy) and masculinity-femininity (task orientation versus person-orientation).  He later added a fifth dimension, long-term orientation, to this.
Now let’s look at how Raj’s team get rated against the dimensions of Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory

In the above graph,
Power distance indicates the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organizations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally. Higher the power distance, more hierarchical the society is.  
Individualism is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. Lower the individualistic score, more closely knit the society is.
Masculinity / Femininity: A high score (masculine) on this dimension indicates that the society will be driven by competition, achievement and success, with success being defined by the winner / best in field – a value system that starts in school and continues throughout organizational behaviour.  A low score (feminine) on the dimension means that the dominant values in society are caring for others and quality of life. A feminine society is one where quality of life is the sign of success and standing out from the crowd is not admirable.
Uncertainty avoidance indicates the way a society deals with the fact that the future can never be known: should we try to control the future or just let it happen? The higher the score, the lesser will be the acceptance towards imperfection.
Long term orientation indicates the extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical short-term point of view.

As you can see when India scores high on power distance, Denmark from where Raj’s lead was have a low power distance score. So Raj expects every thing to be told to him clearly by his leads and have high respect for power that comes from seniority or role. But his lead believes in employee autonomy and each person taking the ownership of what he/she needs to deliver. If you look at the second dimension on individualism, we can understand why Raj is not able to understand the expectation his lead is having in taking the ownership of the issue

It’s impossible to avoid cultural conflicts when you are forming global teams. The way a person value his team member will vary from person to person in global teams depending up on the culture you are from. Many organizations try to overcome this by having a uniform organizational philosophies or principles across the globe. This helps the employees to understand what behavior is valued in that organization and helps to build a uniform culture across the globe. One thing that definitely helps in global team is the awareness about what your team member’s value as behaviors from you. As team members become more aware of this, they start putting focus on transferring the message more effectively by using the right wrappers reducing potential conflicts. So wearing the other cap and making decisions based on that might change the game in favor of you.

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