Anna-Marie started the virtual meeting with her ten-person multicultural team, and was pleased that they’d finally been able to schedule a time when everyone on three continents could join. Initially everyone offered a cheerful greeting, but as the meeting went on, Anna-Marie had the feeling that she was the only person commenting on each update, and that other team members were multitasking and contributing less than they could be.
After the meeting was over, Anna-Marie reflected that although they had been together in virtual space, the quality of their communication had been poor. While there certainly had been a diverse mix of team members present in the meeting, she felt that she had failed to “include” them effectively in a shared conversation. Most importantly, for a team whose members had never met face-to-face—something that was common in her company—her sense was that the meeting participants didn’t know or trust each other beyond a superficial acquaintance, and that this was holding them back from a full-scale commitment to achieving the team’s goals.
Technology Connects and Divides
We live in an age of accelerating complexity. Smartphones have attracted new users around the world, with more than six billion people now connected to the internet. Technology promises to make life more convenient yet also demands our attention, intruding on our daily lives and pulling us away from the humans in our midst. Parents in many countries now walk down city sidewalks, shantytown alleyways, or dusty country roads with their children, suddenly stopping to read and respond to text messages while the children tug at their parents’ clothing for attention.
Our global employees also want and deserve our attention. Careful and thoughtful management of human interaction is more crucial today than at any time in the past. Yes, it’s easier than ever before to stay in touch with family, friends, colleagues, and business associates even at great distance—but intermittent snippets of communication are inadequate to build or sustain the trust that an inclusive environment requires, and can enrage as well as engage. Distance still matters, and trust is harder to build and more fragile to maintain across oceans and continents.
Access to a wider world does not guarantee that we can stretch our minds and hearts to embrace it. Worn down by the rat-tat-tat of more frequent technological intrusions, our subconscious wants to take it easy and assures us that we will be able to work more efficiently and productively if we surround ourselves with people who have similar values and work styles. Research shows, however, that organizations that leverage their diversity at all levels produce superior results compared to those that are homogeneous.
The Global Diversity Challenge
The challenge for the leaders of multinational organizations, then, is not only to build and retain a diverse workforce, but to capitalize on the advantages that it offers. Inclusiveness, and the trust that it fosters, are essential. Inclusion policies and related initiatives, however, are often crafted through the lens of people working at corporate headquarters and do not always fit local circumstances and preferences.
In essence, having the latest and greatest technology available can help in capitalizing on the advantages of diversity but is insufficient. Having clear policies on inclusion can help but is also inadequate. Managing the human aspect requires an understanding of how cultural and communication style differences can either bring people together or pull them apart.
Inclusive Leadership Techniques
Employees mirror what they perceive as being valued through their leaders’ words and actions. A team leader such as Anna-Marie could take the following steps to create a more inclusive team environment and to build trust with and among team members:
- Pre-meeting 1:1 Conversations: The more the team leader knows in advance about the ideas and priorities of team members, the easier it is to incorporate these in the agenda and draw them out in the discussion. It is not necessary to contact individual team members before every meeting, but it can be helpful to reach out in advance to a few people in key roles whose input is particularly important, or to team members who come from cultures in which modesty and emotional restraint are valued.
- Virtual Icebreakers: At each meeting, Anna-Marie could begin by asking each person, “Where in the world are you today?” Or she could invite one or two team members to turn around their mobile phones or laptops and give a virtual tour of their local office space. Such efforts help team members get to know each other and begin to build trust.
- Video Calls: Although people participating at odd hours may be less than eager to be on camera, seeing the faces of other team members does make a difference, and also makes it harder for meeting participants to multitask. On the other hand, bandwidth is painfully slow in some countries, and some multinational companies maintain a superior level of technology only at headquarters. Team leaders should investigate the issue before embarrassing any team member who might have to admit that they do not have this technical capacity.
- Meeting Process: Balancing presentation segments with discussion or calls for input through voice or chat can keep meeting participants engaged.
- Virtual Watercooler: A team leader can use text or instant messaging to reach out to colleagues on a casual basis to check in, provide contextual information, and create opportunities for team members to ask questions or receive coaching that might not otherwise be available.
- Technology Selection: It is best to utilize technology in ways that people find comfortable. For example, although rarely using instant messaging among themselves, one supply-chain group based in the U.S. used it after hours to follow up with suppliers in Asia, answering questions that arose from the e-mails they had sent earlier in the day. In Anna-Marie’s case, she could ask team members about their preferred communication technologies.
- Personal Touch: In addition to asking her assistant to keep a running electronic summary of the meeting contents, Anna-Marie could provide her mobile phone number to team members and invite them to call her with questions and comments. She could also reach out directly to people who seemed to follow the flow of the meeting less closely than others.
Many of us are now working with suppliers, counterparts, and colleagues spread around the globe. Advances in technology make the mechanics of communicating more rapid, smooth, and inexpensive than in the past, and put us in frequent contact with people of diverse cultures and backgrounds. Although one would think that this would push people toward inclusive attitudes and behavior, more often than not the reverse is true—faced with radically different cultures and communication styles, many people fiercely cling to their own ways.
Conscious care of the human element will be the key to success for today’s leaders. Giving people our full attention when in their physical or virtual presence sends a strong signal. Utilizing skills such as listening, observing, and questioning can compensate for the fact that our capacities for introspection and absorbing new information are severely compromised. The path to truly inclusive leadership can be rocky and uncomfortable, but the result is very much worthwhile.
The Inclusive Behaviors Inventory assesses an individual’s inclusivity strengths and blind spots and provides a platform to develop practical steps for improvement. Individual employees can move from learning about their own biases to becoming inclusion champions within their organizations, and ultimately drive business results more effectively on a global scale.