Faculty & Leadership Blog / Faculty in the News

Influencing at a Distance – across Cultures

allan cohen

Allan Cohen, Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership, Babson College and David Bradford, Senior Lecturer on Organizational Behavior Emeritus at Stanford Graduate School of Business

It is hard enough to manage or influence people who are geographically separate, but much more difficult when they come from cultures with different norms about openness, interaction, making relationships, dealing with strangers, the impact of hierarchy on communications, and so on. Influence is about giving what is valued for what you want. In many settings trust can be minimal to make positive exchanges (that may in turn build trust if genuinely mutually beneficial), but across distance and cultures influence often depends on first building sufficient trust to be able to gather vital information. You need to know what is important to others in order to see that they get some of what they care about – their currencies – in return for what you need. If they instinctively withhold, that can be a challenge.

Contemporary organizations often call for rapid connection with a working level of trust, since so much work is done in temporary taskforces, teams, pairs across organizational hierarchies and boundaries, and geographies. At the least this means getting to know others – their interests, concerns, skills, work styles, and if possible their hot buttons. This takes a certain amount of time, which can be problematic for task-centric Western cultures that are impatient with what can seem
like time wasting “socializing.” On the other hand, in many parts of the world, such impatience seems rude and off-putting, either puzzling or offensive. The first step in building readiness to exchange, therefore, is to be prepared to put in the time –and genuine interest — to get to know the other person or group as people and not just resources.

Kavita Bhat quite recently joined a US based startup company where her team is located in a different country.

For the past few years, although we all work remotely, we interact with each other very frequently. It was challenging and interesting in the beginning. My challenge was not only building trust but also to work on building a good working relation with them. I started first by building a skills inventory of each team member (learning about competencies) and worked with them individually identifying their strengths and weaknesses. Depending on their strength I assigned them tasks and worked with them independently. This helped me to build trust. Initially, our conversations were very formal but quite recently I noticed that they are opening up more to me and we are having conversations outside of work.

I provide recognition to my team members. If a monetary award is not possible; a simple note of “Thank You” or “Good Work” brings a lot of positivity in them. As we are not physically present in one location, providing timely feedback about their work is quite essential.

She discovered that just as when working face to face, the effort to know them and design work to fit their strengths won their confidence over time, so working freely at a distance became easier.

Distance, of course, can make all this an obstacle. Technology, therefore, needs careful attention. In general, phone is better than email, video is better than phone, (provided that connections are reasonably reliable and technology manageable), and video that allows both for pair interaction as well as team discussion, with many participants visible, is even better. And video that allows for working on shared documents can make a very large difference.

Agreed-upon norms about not only using a common language but about what to do when unclear over what anyone has said – a word or an idiom – are critical and should be decided collectively in advance. If team members ever do get a chance for face-to-face meetings, discussions about how to work together, not just one way reports from above, along with ample social time, can make a very large difference.

Here is how another experienced global manager, Gopi Parampalli of Electronic Arts, works on these issues:

In addition to the differences between their educational backgrounds and functional assignments, there are inevitable cross cultural differences. I am Asian myself, so I understand the hierarchical tendency to hold back. I ask people from each place what I should do. When I visit China or India, I know my team members won’t speak directly, that I have to ask questions 5 ways.

Fortunately, in our company there is lots of cross pollination. I go to websites that have country advice, make sure I don’t expect them to be an exact replica of me. If a project has gone really badly, it is tempting to get to the bottom line immediately, but I have learned it doesn’t work that way. 1:1 works better for being candid. I talk to the whole team to get different perspectives. Asking in many different ways helps me in what I am trying to figure out. Unless I ask in different ways I don’t know what question I am really trying to answer. It helps get to the real question I need to answer. It’s frustrating, but I need more patience; getting frustrated is not effective in the long term. When it is a complex multi-faceted issue, straightforward won’t get me the answer.

One critical component is that a team leader or facilitator needs to spend time between virtual meetings making sure every individual member has had a chance to express full opinions, and that those opinions are brought into the next discussion. Facilitation during meetings is also important, paying careful attention not only to what is being said but to what is not being said, and calling on individuals who have been silent for a long time. One savvy manager who works from home with groups all over the world told us that she consciously smiles even on the telephone because that somehow conveys warmth and acceptance to encourage open responses.