Strategy and Transformation

Why global teams work (or not)

Why teams work.

Social distance – less is more.


We want to work well together! We want to jell because it’s costly and painful when we don’t. So why is it challenging for some global work teams to thrive while others click? Why is it that some project teams start and run smoothly when they are located in different continents and time zones and other project teams (at the same organization) are stuck in the mud from day one? As Tsedal Neely has found in 15 years of research on team effectiveness, and teaching the subject at Harvard Business School, “One basic difference between global teams that work and those that don’t lies in the level of social distance – the degree of emotional connection among team members.” Think of social distance not as physical distance between two workers or among teams but as a measure of emotional closeness or connectedness. Social distance is the degree of social sensitivity (e.g., human interaction or human engagement) teams have with one another. In a July Forbes post by Geoff Colvin, Humans are underrated, this author’s research led him to conclude that social interaction is the foundation for teams’ successes, the “very essence of being human” and why we are wired for engagement.
MIT Professor Alex “Sandy” Pentland has found the same as Neely and Colvin, that “social sensitivity of the team members, their skills of social interaction” is THE factor in group effectiveness, and not cohesion, motivation, members’ personalities or even individual intelligence. They believe that social closeness affects working effectively in groups for another reason.

When social distance is high, team performance goes down, idea creation and innovation suffer and organizations lose out on realizing teams’ potential.

There is yet another twist on this problem for global teams. Both Neely and Pentland have determined that teams working in the same place are more connected; as Neely says, “their social distance is usually low” and this builds congeniality and alignment. When teams engage they tend to sidestep common problems that disconnected teams encounter, problems with mistrust and misunderstanding what certain actions or behaviors mean. Teams with high social distance “struggle to develop effective interactions,” says Neely. And, while Pentland was researching groups at his Human Dynamics Laboratory, he came to a startling conclusion. “Human interaction is so powerful that increasing it just a little improves group performance a lot.” In the age of the robot, our humanness has never been more valuable to succeeding in global teams. And paradoxically, the more we interact through technology our teams are not becoming more effective and in many cases email, texting and social media are widening social distance among teams to a point where…

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“Mitigating social distance therefore becomes the primary management challenge for the global team leader.” – Neely

For organizational leaders and managers of dispersed teams, understanding why some teams succeed and others fail is now a “must do” because work is becoming more and more about where we are, and where we are is all over the globe. Just this year Yale’s School of Management (SOM) launched a new core curriculum course, called Global Virtual Teams. Students in this course should be prepared with “a set of skills for how to interact better with people” – people from different cultures and different work habits. That’s good news for some, but what about leaders who haven’t had the benefit of a dedicated course or when their own organization lacks training on improving their global teams? And what about work teams who speak different languages, and when English is the mandated business language? Pentland has his prescription and so does Neely.
Pentland discovered during extensive research studies using “sociometric” badges that team members would wear (i.e., measures a persons tone of voice, if people are facing one another while talking, how much they gesture, etc.), that “face-to-face interaction is far richer and more effective than is fragile, meager digital versions.” He realized that those unspoken social signals told them “all they needed to know about the performance of a group.” As those badges monitored teams’ interactions, Pentland and his lab found that the effective teams interacted in three noteworthy ways creating “idea flow.” These teams were good at:

  1. Generating lots of ideas in short ‘snippets’
  2. Switching between advancing ideas and responding to them, “good,” or “what?” in short comments, signaling consensus on an idea’s value
  3. Producing diverse ideas – everyone contributing more or less equally

As for Neely, she developed a tested framework called SPLIT, useful for translating the efficacy of face-to-face interactions into digital ones. I highly recommend reading the HBR article to understand how to shrink the social distance among geographically dispersed colleagues.
STRUCTURE (perception of power) – when teams are globally dispersed there’s a tendency for members of the larger “majority” group to appear as more powerful than other “smaller” groups. This is amplified if the “leader” is located closest to the major group or to headquarters. Also, majority members might ignore the needs and contributions of ‘minor’ colleagues, creating a negative dynamic of “in-groups and out-groups.” Neely suggests using 3 messages as a remedy:

  • WHO WE ARE – Encourage sensitivity.
    • The team is a single entity of individual differences.
  • WHAT WE DO – Everyone’s work helps the company.
    • The team shares a common purpose.
  • I AM THERE FOR YOU – You matter.
    • Pepper each team member with calls and emails and particularly involve distant team members, making sure they give input on important decisions and thanking them for good work.

PROCESS (importance of empathy) – leaders and team members should add “deliberate moments” into their process such as [1] seeking awareness of how others see them, asking “How is the collaboration going?” [2] It’s important to build in “unstructured time” into the process for small talk, sharing knowledge and building relationships. And [3], brook disagreement but “take the heat out” of the debate. She mentioned something that I do at times, “model the act of questioning.” Also, make sure to include the views from team members with the least status or experience first; Neely has found that seeking input this way tells the team that everyone’s input matters.
LANGUAGE (3 tips for communicating in meetings)

  1. Fluent speakers – dial down dominance (e.g., less slang and esoteric cultural references, slow down speaking pace, seek confirmation and practice active listening)
  2. Less fluent speakers – dial up engagement (e.g., resist withdrawal, refrain form reverting to your native language and ask when you don’t understand)
  3. Team leaders – balance for inclusion (e.g., monitor what’s happening, draw out all team members, encourage less fluent speakers to join in and be prepared to define and interpret content when needed)

IDENTITY (mismatch of perceptions) – leaders and team members can and should learn from one another to overcome misunderstandings and to “get” each other. Neely advises we all take a mindset of “everyone is a teacher and a learner” by establishing two-way communication and a “give and take of asking questions and providing answers.”
TECHNOLOGY (the connection challenge) – digital interactions can be helped or harmed by technology, so Neely advises that leaders should ask the following questions when they’re deciding on which technologies to use.

  • Should communication be instant? Instant technologies are valuable when leaders need to persuade others to adopt their viewpoint. But if they simply want to share information, then delayed methods such as e‑mail are simpler, more efficient, and less disruptive to people’s lives (especially those in different time zones).
  • Do I need to reinforce the message? Savvy leaders use multiple platforms of communication. This ensures messages are understood and remembered.
  • Am I leading by example? Without a doubt empathic and smart leaders walk their talk, especially if they want distributed teams to pick up on the desired behavior.

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Lisa McMichael

Lisa McMichael is a Senior Manager Digital Accessibility, CPACC with the Detroit Business Unit.

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