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Transcript: Moving beyond ‘us’ and ‘them’ on global teams

KARL MOORE – This is Karl Moore of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, talking management for The Globe and Mail. Today, I am delighted to speak to Mark Mortensen from [international business school] Insead.

So Mark, when you think about it, we are much more apt to be part of global teams. That's very different than a team in my own city and my own building. What are a couple of the things that we have learned about how to be more effective in this role?

MARK MORTENSEN – So global teams are something that people have been very, very excited about in recent years. From academic standards, in recent years, which means the last 15 or so years, it's been a very hot topic.

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People get all excited when people come in. At Insead, we have a program on managing global virtual teams and we have people who are always chomping at the bit. How do I do this better? How do I figure out what's the magic sauce and how do we get these things to work?

The short answer, of course, as is always the case, is that there isn't a magic sauce, there is not one thing. But one of the things that I push people on a lot is, there are the obvious things that people immediately think about – culture, how do I work with someone who is different from me? Working across language – how do I work with someone who speaks differently? Where there is a language barrier, there is a power difference based on how comfortable we are.

One of my co-authors and very good friend Tsedal Neeley at Harvard Business School has done some great work understanding how language affects power and dynamics, and things like that. These things are critical.

What I tend to do is I sort of back people up and say there are actually a couple things that I think you need to think about even before that, and which we typically don't focus on.

Those two are – one has to do with a shared sense of identity, and the other has to do with a shared understanding. So they are very comparable, very parallel, but they play two very different roles.

The first is very simple, based on everything we know about psychology and the way our brain works. We are really good and we like to simplify the world – we make buckets, we group people in different ways. We very typically group it into "us" and "them." Any manager thinking about it – just ask yourself a very simple question: How often in your global team do you ever talk about, "Well, they do blah, blah, blah. We do this, but they do that."

We make these categorizations, we group people into us and them, and that fundamentally affects the way that we view those other people. Typically, we view us very positively and we view them not so positively.

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So the first thing has to with well, how do we think about that, what can we do to make sure that the team doesn't fracture along the fact that some of us are working in France, some of us are working in Japan, some of us are working in Canada, some of us are working in Mexico, and thinking about those differences first and foremost to, "What is our real goal? What is our superordinate purpose, our goal that really focuses us in and gets us aligned in the way that we are thinking in?" Particularly thinking about who we actually are. The more we can do that, that is a very critical first step.

Second piece of the puzzle is the idea of shared understanding. Very simply put, you don't know the same stuff that I know. And that's for very obvious reasons, and this is not only just about work but this is about things as simple and seemingly different as what the weather is like.

I think everybody recognizes that if it has been raining for the last six weeks and grey and cold and miserable, everybody in the office is not at their best. They are not the most friendly, they are shorter in their responses, they are quicker to get angry, and all the stuff we know from basic psychology from something as simple as the rain.

Well, how often, when you are having a video conference, with somebody on the other side of the world, do you say, "Well let me just tell you first, it's been raining for three weeks." We don't do that, we focus on the work and everything we know about communicating across different technological media, we focus very strongly on the work and less on the exogenous stuff.

So this is the second piece of the puzzle; it's not just about feeling like we are the same group, it's also about knowing that we actually know the same information – information about the task, information about the people, but also information about the environment, about how things are going, and all sorts of other things. Informal hallway water cooler conversations and things like that. Those are much harder to have when you are working globally, but they also have a much bigger payoff at the same time.

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