On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy
Ideal Traits of Global, Cross-Cultural Virtual Team Members
Information about selecting virtual team members with focus on the need to function globally and cross-culturally is scarce. As luck would have it, I came across some recommendations derived from Dr. Joel Paul Ginsburg’s work – available in dissertation form here. The following is a representation Global Symfony’s recommendations which I’ve modified for simplicity (see their website for details):
1. Active listener, open/receptive to criticism, effective communicator
2. Adaptable to diversity
5. Self- and collective-efficacy (i.e., ability to be assertive and cooperative)
6. The ability to resolve conflicts using appropriate conflict resolution strategies
Tolerance for ambiguity, an affinity for complexity, and caution against heuristic thinking
I agree with Dr. Ginsburg’s conclusions but with qualifications. To start, I’ll address item #2 (adaptable to diversity). It would be helpful to specify and highlight demonstrable signs of the capacity to be adaptable to diversity. Thus, the recommendation can be clarified by saying, instead, that the ideal cross-cultural virtual team member should exhibit tolerance for ambiguity, an affinity for complexity, and take care to avoid heuristic thinking to the highest degree possible.
My last point about avoidance of heuristic thinking is critical as everyday social experiences confirm that assumptions based upon little evidence often cause problems between individuals who’re first becoming acquainted with each other. The more prone someone is towards making specific assumptions, the more potential for misunderstanding and offense results.
Furthermore, people often assume that making a general assumption of similarity is better than making a general assumption of difference. It’s not. Starting with a general assumption of difference until similarity is proven is a superiority strategy when trying to perceive the other person for who they are (instead of superimposing your own qualities onto the individual and assuming this individual will speak up to disagree). See Stumbling Blocks in Intercultural Communication by Laray M. Barna for more on consequences of assuming similarity.
It’s very human to engage in heuristic thinking as such cognitive shortcuts help us navigate through a world rich with stimuli. However, given a choice, those who practice cautious judgement and approach each person they work with as an individual instead of heavily relying on preconceived cognitive models of what an Asian is like, what a man is like, or what a 25 year old is like, is more likely to be successful as a global, cross-cultural team member. There’s a story I tell about the folly of making assumptions that illustrates how wrong it is to arrive at what someone is like through heuristic thinking even if the assumption is correct, and it goes like this:
One of my Asian relatives ordered chicken nuggets at a fast food restaurant. Upon receiving her order, the staff member promptly asked, “Would you like sweet and sour sauce with that?” As it turns out, my relative does like sweet and sour sauce best out of all the choices available and had planned on selecting it. She did so but was fuming as she arrived home and recounted this event to me.
When I tell this story to others, we all chuckle about it (don’t worry, my relative in the story sees the humor in this as well!), and someone asks, “If the person who took her order assumed correctly then why did your relative get mad?” Simple. It was because the staff member didn’t see her as an individual. It would have been far better to ask, “What kind of sauce do you want?” regardless of what the staff member’s gut was saying. If that had been me instead of my relative there, the staff member’s assumption would have been wrong. I hate sweet and sour sauce. Now before anyone can say “twinkie” or “banana” (i.e., assume that I’ve tossed aside my heritage), I hate honey-mustard dressing just as much! The point is, there’s variation in every group (and there’s variation in the degree of variation when comparing groups as well) as the illustrations in this article on mapping cultures show.
Active listening and introversion
Item #1 highlights the importance of being an active listener. I fully agree as one develops a more accurate assessment of how others are by absorbing information they provide to you about who they are. However, in the details associated with this item, it is stated that introversion is a negative quality for a remote virtual team member to have. Naturally, this highly introverted remote virtual team member has some qualifications to make.
It’s been my experience that introverts are more naturally inclined to engage in active listening. It’s not that extroverts are unable, however the more gregarious the extrovert, the less the extrovert engages in active listening. Extroverts should remember to allow others more time to respond than they themselves need (some of us deem it impolite to interrupt!), and they also need to remember that silence on the part of their conversation partner does not mean agreement!
Finally, I agree with the general assessment that you can count on extroverts to act as the “social glue” keeping virtual team members together through actively encouraging communication. Indeed, extroverts are important here. However, I don’t think it’s totally realistic to operate globally and cross-culturally with a team strictly comprised of extroverts without an introvert among them. Why? In many regions of the world (Asian countries I know of come to mind), the population and, by extension, the very culture skews towards introversion – this is the reverse of extrovert-dominated U.S. and other western regions. If extroverts struggle to understand introverts in their own country, imagine how much greater the struggle will be to understand introverts in other places in the world!
Hence, my recommendation is to create some diversity when selecting team members based on where they are on the extroversion-introversion continuum. Take advantage of the unique strengths of different personality types and, at the same time, keep other qualities that may be even more important (regardless of introversion/extroversion) in mind as illustrated in this post about introverted remote workers.
I look forward to any questions or comments. If you found this post useful, please share it. Thank you!