Culture & Competency

A-Z of Virtual Teams: B is Backgrounds

The different people on your virtual team are likely to come from different cultural backgrounds, have different tastes, be sensitive to different things, and have different goals from their involvement in the project. In the same way, when members of a virtual team are composed of people from different functional units and specialties, they bring differing technical perspectives, values and frameworks to the table. Everyone is not like you … and if everyone was, a team would not be necessary, and indeed, would be quite boring in approach and conservative in outcomes.

While these differences can be meshed together to become a driver of innovation and breakthrough thinking when harnessed in the right way, they can also derail a project when they are ignored or belittled.

What Do I Need To Do?
For yourself, you need to be upfront with the other people about the frameworks and expectations in your cultural or technical background that dictate the way you see the world and the things that you expect from the project.

For yourself in relation to the other people on the team, you need to listen deeply to what they say, how they address you, and what their values appear to be … in other words, you need to try to figure out how they think, where the areas of similarity are between you and them, and where the areas of difference are. You will then know what common ground you have to call on when the going gets tough, and also where you will need to be careful as a result of your differences.

Addendum: Another thought. The nature of the team’s task and the duration of their work will have a moderating effect on how much you need to get into this. If the task is fairly straight forward and will only take a couple of days, the need to go deep into this vanishes. It would be fair to expect each person to come with their mind set on the task, and to work together effectively towards a quick outcome. On the other hand, if the task is complex, and you’ll be working with the team for some months or a year, the need to explore background and cultivate common ground becomes much more vital to the ongoing effectiveness of the virtual team.

See A-Z of Virtual Teams: Summary for the complete list.

Categories: Culture & Competency

4 replies »

  1. In my experience projects tend to underestimate the power of background in a teams ability to get things done. A team who know and share a background will move forward far faster. If teams have different unshared backgrounds the going will be much slower – even for a short task.
    It’s going to be an ongoing challenge to virtual teams – how do you find out someone’s background? We do it naturally in a face-to-face context. It seems a bit strange (in my culture (I assume you are going to cover that later)) to phone someone up and directly ask them their background.

  2. When working with multi-national and thereby multi-cultural teams the importance of background is amplified in terms of how you communicate as well. It can be quite helpful to understand the values of each culture. Examples: what type of work schedules they tend to keep, how they communicate (this gets in to minute details like – how to I form questions and requests? Why type of words do I choose?)
    Also, if the assumption is that the groups will work in English, with non-native English speakers participating, then we must take special effort to understand the meaning of what people are trying to communicate. If you know a few salutations in multiple languages – that helps too!
    We also need to understand background in terms of the preferred modes of communication. This background *can* be generational (Baby Boomer, Gen-X, Gen-Y). But, in many cases, it comes down to preference. Some respond better to email. While others find an on-line chat to be a quick path to resolution. And still others prefer a phone call.
    One other tip on background. Of course the simplest and best way is to ask. However, the web is full of ‘background’. Often, it is possible to research the person(s) or culture(s) in advance of the meeting. Some early research is helpful when trying to understand background in the variant contexts.