The Leadership Behaviors That Make or Break a Global Team

BY David Champion – HARVARD BUSINESS REPORT

We’re all familiar with the promise of global operations. It’s not just about accessing big new markets—the bigger payoff, most people agree, comes from expanding the firm’s talent pool and bringing together a diversity of perspectives that will combine to make the firm more productive and innovative.

Well, that’s the idea, but as many people who’ve actually worked on a global team know, the reality often feels very different. The team from head office feels like it’s carrying the folks working remotely, while the latter feel they’re ignored and undervalued.

To get insight into how to stop that from happening, I recently visited professor Tsedal Neeley, who studies and teaches global teamwork at Harvard Business School. What follows is an edited version of our conversation

HBR: What is the biggest challenge of leading a global team?

NEELEY: 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.

What causes social distance?

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.

Supposing you’re leading a global team working in multiple locations and you feel one of the members is out of the loop. What can you do to fix that?

First off, you have to increase your contact with that person. He or she has to feel your presence. It doesn’t really matter how—you can use instant messaging, you can text them, you can call them, send them e-mails, obviously—the point is that you really have to make the person feel that you think he’s important. Then, when you have group meetings, invite him to speak up.  Make him the first person you ask for a comment or reaction to a particular suggestion. This demonstrates to the rest of the team that the person is valued and important.  Also, think hard about how much this person gets inconvenienced in terms of time zone differences. Is she regularly taking calls with the team at 10 pm her time? If she’s the one who always has to compromise her schedule she’s likely to feel less important because of that.

Getting a person to participate more in meetings is obviously difficult if the person struggles with the team’s common language. How can the team leader help there?

People who are less fluent have a tendency to withdraw from communication, which means the team may not get all the input it needs. As a leader, therefore, you have to make sure that your fluent speakers make room for less fluent speakers to communicate.  Again, this is going to involve calling on the weaker linguists in meetings when you feel their expertise is relevant. It means maybe limiting the dominance of the stronger linguists. And don’t try to speak for people or interpret them, because that can destroy their confidence as well. The good thing is that language imbalances are predictable. When you put a team together you can tell which ones are comfortable in the team’s chosen language, which means you can formulate an explicit team strategy for dealing with fluency differences. Get the weaker speakers some formal language training ahead of and during the project and get them to formally commit to participating. Get stronger speakers to make it a goal not to talk too much.

How does a team leader develop trust with distant employees?

All employees want leaders to be fair and to respect them and they’re always looking for reassurance on this score. In a global team, whose leader is remote and an unknown, the anxiety levels are high on this score and so team members are constantly on the lookout for cues about what leaders feel and think about them. On your visits and in video-calls they watch what you say and how you say it very carefully and are hungry for information about you and what you are likely to think about them. They’ll pore over your e-mails. And of course they’re watching you around your decisions, they’re watching how you treat them, they’re watching the extent to which you help them remove obstacles so that they can be successful at their jobs.

A good way to build confidence in this highly charged atmosphere is to disclose some information about your vulnerabilities because that will lower the anxiety levels. If they see you recognizing your fallibilities they’ll be less worried about their own.   What’s more, by opening up, you’re modeling the types of behaviors that you want your team members to adopt and creating a context of psychological safety. This makes it more likely that people will speak up honestly when mistakes have been made. As we all know, people worry a lot about the impression they make, and this is precisely what you want to avoid.

What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for someone leading a global team?

Think of the job as a combination of being in several marriages at once and being a parent at the same time. You’ve got to constantly work on your relationship with every member of the team.  You’ve got to schedule date nights with each of them. And never, ever take your relationships for granted. In co-located teams you can afford to ease up on the communication pedal once the project gets under way and coast until something important changes or a new member joins the team.   People see you around and feel reassured. But with global teams, the members just need more from you. They will worry about late replies: “I sent the boss an e-mail last night and she still hasn’t gotten back to me. Is something wrong?”

At the same time you’ve got to manage your team members’ relationships with each other. In co-located teams people can manage relationships with each other quite easily—they’re physically nearby, culturally close, and there’s always time for the water-cooler chat. With global teams you’ve got to step in as a leader to help your members learn to communicate directly and be ready to moderate if need be.

I can’t emphasize enough how important the leader is to the success of a global project. Most times, when we pick a team leader we’ll weight the leader’s credibility on the task—look at their track record in this line of work. But if it’s a global team, we need to emphasize the people skills, especially their ability to manage distance, not just mastery of the subject matter.


David Champion is a senior editor at HBR.  Based in France, he is also a member of the Academic Committee of the European Center for Executive Development (CEDEP) in Fontainebleau.