Continuing the discussions of cultural diversity in virtual teams, the cultural concept of uncertainty avoidance is that each regional or national group has a level of uncertainty they expect in general life and consequently communications. Similar to power distance, individuality, cultural masculinity and long term orientation they are largely ingrained into the fabric of the society and coded into individuals as they grow up within the society.
The manner uncertainty avoidance manifests its self in virtual team environments is typically through the level of detail produced and/or expected in discussions, meetings and most specifically formal and informal documents and reports, it can also impact on the way instructions and directions in the workplace are viewed and acted upon.
Characteristics of uncertainty avoidance in cultures
Personnel from countries considered as having high uncertainty avoidance, such as Greece, Russia and many of the former soviet states, Argentina and Chile, will typically expect explicit instructions and direction for many tasks and will provide very detailed and formal responses to requests and questions. These individuals will typically feel at their most comfortable and productive in a world of structure and rules. Those coming from cultures considered to have low uncertainty avoidance, such as Singapore, the Nordic countries, Great Britain and the United States of America are usually less rigid in their expectations for instructions and will typically be more generalist in reports and responses to requests. These people feel most comfortable in a world with few rules and where those rules are more there for guidance than direct control.
According to some research, when viewed by people from the opposite end of the uncertainty avoidance scale, people from high uncertainty avoidance cultures can appear fidgety and aggressive, while those from the low uncertainty avoidance cultures may appear dull and lazy. All of this is however subjective and is largely a relative view from someone with different perspectives on the world. So, how best to communicate between countries with highly divergent levels of uncertainty avoidance;
- As with all cultural differences, the first thing to do is to really try to understand the expectations of the others in your group, avoid making any unfounded assumptions, discuss with your partners how each party expects to communicate and how to be treated and, where appropriate, put documented and structured processes in place that satisfy the expectations of the high uncertainty avoidance members of your team. In my experience, team members with high uncertainty avoidance will be the ones more uncomfortable with a more casual arrangement than the low uncertainty avoidance personnel will be with a more structured one and as such, it is typically more efficient to structure the communications around them, produce more explicit procedures and processes and establish a more formal working environment.
- Once the basics are in place, keep to the schedule for meetings, issue clear, concise and well presented minutes that detail actions and clearly assign responsibilities for these actions, regardless of which side of the scale the assignee is at (this is good practice in meetings anyway but is often overlooked in the lower uncertainty cultures)
- As with all virtual team communication matters, continuous or at least frequent reviews of the processes and their efficiency and acceptance is a requirement.
These differences are all part of the overall complexity of virtual teams, as stated, everyone is different, there is no right or wrong way to do things, just different ways that have been developed and adopted across the world to reflect local social, economic, political and other drivers. As we learn to work together we all need to be conscious of these differences and work with them not fight against them.
Ulfire specialises in assisting organisations develop high performing virtual teams, please feel free to contact us for any assistance or guidance you may need in establishing or managing your team or project.
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