Anthropology Culture Product Management

The Foreigner who Could be Undermining your Global Team

So, you’ve got a global team. People based in several different countries are working on your product.

How are they all going to work together?

They’ve spent all kinds of effort and money on training and cultural sensitivity to be more compatible with your work culture. The heavy-lifters are papered with certifications. The managers are degreed. There are Service Level Agreements in place to ensure their commitment to getting things done. The remote collaboration tools are up and running, so work can continue 24 hours a day, rotating through the longitudes, time zone by time zone.

Global team graphic

But in spite of these preparations, there is a foreigner that might be undermining the entire project. They just don’t get the complexity and subtlety of a global team working together. They haven’t put that much effort into adapting or developing genuine interest in how the other teams’ members think of the product, the work, collaboration, or any ostensibly shared point-of-view. It’s not that they consciously mean to introduce difficulty, but they are operating with some old, stubborn and largely unconscious assumptions that blind them to the significant risk their blindness entails. Even if the risk is recognized by another, it will be difficult to escalate, since the problem foreigner has high status, so their bubble is largely unchallenged.

Who is this threat to the global team?

It’s you.

Or it could be, if you’re operating under a few common fallacies:

1. It’s all the other people that are foreign, not me.

2. It’s right and proper that the others mold themselves to my culture.

2a. Okay, it’s maybe not right and proper exactly, but at least necessary, since the project originates here. It’s “our” project, it’s “their” job to conform.

Are these fallacies obvious? If you’re an experienced product manager and/or an observant traveler then perhaps they are, but they are not obvious to everyone.

Even if these fallacies are obvious to you, what concrete actions will you take to counter them? While acknowledging them is a start, acknowledgement alone won’t protect your project nor open up the possibility of harnessing the differences across your global team to build a more integrated, more effective culture.

Consider constructive profiling. While there is simply no substitute for understanding individuals individually, reading up on the business culture tendencies of the nationalities of your global team can at least provide you a framework for study, to consider what policies and procedures may need to be changed. For example, how might a particular group’s perceptions and expressions of authority make getting honest input a challenge? What types of communication could surface more brain power and less deference? This is just one example of a myriad of team integration considerations that are worthy of pursuit.

Organizational Culture

It’s often we Westerners that assume the “others” are foreign, but we are not… it’s that West-centric assumption of being the measure of all things modern. But it’s more interesting and more effective to accept that you, the Westerner, are a foreigner too, that the entire team is an aggregate of “foreigners”. Teamwork is nurtured by an attitude that pursues a new, synthetic culture, and that all cultural ingredients should be considered as potential enablers for success.

Time and attention pressures often minimize a product manager’s willingness to put the day-to-day on pause long enough to consider the cultural aspects of a project. But not doing so increases the risk of unspoken disconnects and reduces the opportunities for social innovation that could raise the quality of the overall result.

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About the author

Trevor Rotzien