Oscar Wilde wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth”. If Wilde had been alive today, he may have just as easily been talking about communication across the internet. It has given a voice to multitudes who may have previously gone completely unheard. As a result of social media, global communication technologies and corporations structured around entities like virtual teams, the masks we wear can expose as much about us as they hide…perhaps even more.
Consider the topic of communication across different cultures. There is a certain relativity that is inherent in how various cultures view each other, necessarily affecting how they interact. One of the keys to success in communicating across these cultural divides is flexibility. In any relationship, particularly in the early stages, the participants are ultimately flexible but as time goes on and expectations for the team deepen, that flexibility can diminish, especially in the face of looming deadlines or other imposed constraints.
The use of virtual teams can go a long way in helping to expose and break down those barriers between cultures but, without careful management and effective leadership, they also pose the risk of highlighting those barriers, widening the chasm and polarizing them. “Effective cross-cultural negotiation is one of the most important global business skills a manager can possess.” (Adler, 2008 p. 226) The reason for this is simple, as Adler points out: “Global managers spend more than 50 percent of their time in formal and informal negotiations.” (2008 p. 226) In my own job, I spend a significant amount of time working with people whom I will never meet in person. We negotiate, collaborate and execute often very detailed plans, each from remote locations. Once those plans have come to fruition, we may not speak again until the next project, often several months or even a year later.
Developing effective operating guidelines for a virtual teams can help to create a shared culture that supersedes the differing functional, geographic, or other subcultures that may be divisive to the team. But there is a bias that is inherent even in the dialogue we have about cross-cultural issues. We refer to “western culture” as if it is some homogenous body that needs to adapt to all others. In fact, the diversity of the west and those who are managers within it adds a level of complexity that often goes unrecognized.
If leaders of cross-cultural virtual teams are to overcome this, a concerted effort will have to go into developing those teams from the ground, up. This will necessarily involve a decidedly focused investment in time, energy, resources and money. In this way, past knowledge can drive future decisions, generating teams that are sophisticated and progressive.
Adler, N. (2008). International Dimensions of Organizational Behavior (5th edition). Cincinnati OH: Southwestern College Publishing.
Wilde, O. (1913). The Critic As Artist. In Intentions. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London. Retrieved from http://www.gutenberg.org