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What’s the Biggest Challenge of Leading a Global Team?

The promise of global operations is not just about accessing big new markets—the bigger payoff, but expanding the firm’s talent pool and bringing together a diversity of perspectives that will combine to make the firm more productive and innovative.

37b334bBut the reality never quite matches the promise. The Harvard Business Review spoke to professor Tsedal Neeley, who studies and teaches global teamwork at Harvard Business School, on how to successfully manage a global team.

Neeley notes that social distance “is one of the greatest barriers to effective teamwork. In the context of teams, the term denotes a lack of connection between co-workers or colleagues and is sometimes referred to as psychological distance. Without a sense of connection, it is very difficult for co-workers to get on the same page about their work, whether they’re determining how to accomplish a task or thinking about a process for doing a task. Overcoming social distance is more challenging in the context of global teams because when all of a team’s members are nowhere near each other, it’s all the more difficult for them to agree on how to coordinate their work.”

That’s also without mentioning the issues the HR department of a global business can face. Organising the payroll for example can be a complex and confusing process for multinational companies. Fortunately, services like CloudPay are making things easier for a lot of businesses, with their automated payroll solutions. However, inside global operations, there are still other important social issues at play.

Specifically, there are five ways in which social distance gets created and you have to manage each differently:

“To begin with, team structure—the physical configuration of the global team, how many people are in what location, not to mention where the leader is. Then there are the processes that you use for managing team interactions—without carefully managing communication, team interactions can end up as a dialogue of the deaf. Language is a third source: all teams have a common language but when some people are more fluent than others, it creates social distance between members. The fourth source is identity. The ways in which global team members define themselves (through culture, religion, and gender, for instance) affect team dynamics and mutual trust and require careful management. Finally, you have to be savvy about how you use communications technology. We often assume that mediating technologies like email or instant messaging or Skype or conference calls are neutral and benign. But the way we use them can decisively shape relationships among global teams.”

Ramon Henson of Rutgers Business School says there are four key success factors that allow a global team to work effectively: “the team has to have a compelling vision or goal, members need to trust one another, their skills (whether these are technical or social skills) need to be complementary, and a great deal of attention needs to be paid to team processes.”

“In my opinion, these same key success factors can be applied to global virtual teams, although how to make these factors work effectively becomes more complex and more challenging with these types of teams. Some of the challenges are obvious: differences in geography, time, language, diversity, culture, size and technology. Others, such as gaining the participation and commitment of team members, are subtler. To add to the challenges, many global team leaders are managing teams whose members do not report directly to them. Therefore, these team leaders have to learn to exercise ‘influence without authority.'”