Why “Us vs. Them” Doesn’t Work at Work.

Recently I was researching and writing about a topic related to cross-cultural communications.  Specifically, how U.S. based project managers could better manage offshore software development projects by better understanding their counterparts in India.

I think my learnings are applicable to a variety of business situations.

It’s no surprise there are many differences in the way these two cultures think, work, live and view the world. These have been well documented, particularly well in this article “Managing Cross-Cultural Issues in  Global Software Outsourcing”

When confronting difficulties, it is easy to fall into the “Us vs. Them” mentality and blame the other group because of these differences.  In his book Factfulness, Hans Rosling writes that the “the necessary and useful instinct to generalize can  distort our worldview.  It can make us jump to conclusions about a whole category based on a few, or even just one, unusual example.”

I believe we call this stereotyping.

When it comes to offshore projects, it can be difficult to bridge the stereotyping gap, even with a common language and standardized processes.

Working halfway across the world doesn’t help make it easy to build personal rapport—which often happens when teams are able to catch up at lunch or for drinks after hours.

Yes, there are tools such as Slack and Skype that make communications possible in real time.  And there are well established development methodologies like Agile that make collaboration a daily event.  Through retrospectives, Agile has built-in accountability and a window into what went right and what went wrong.

But most of these communications are technical in nature.  And often times team leaders focus their time purely on the project deliverables at the expense of the fuzzier “relationship building” component necessary for true understanding of the individuals they are working with.

Yet, the effort that goes into building personal relationships helps build trust and leads to people being more open about any challenges they are experiencing with the work.  Without some degree of intimacy, people may to hesitate in expressing their true thoughts.  This is true in both cultures, but Indians “in general” seem more reserved in doing so. And when issues simmer instead of being addressed, because team members fear speaking up, progress becomes impeded.

One excellent piece of advice I received from an experienced project manager was that she always made an effort to personally get to know her offshore teammates by facilitating  non-work dialog about family,  vacations, children, weather — anything besides project details. She had amazing results with her projects when her teammates learned to know and trust her.

Getting beyond the “Us vs. Them” mindset applies to more than just cross-cultural issues. Think cross-generational or cross-genderational, for example, next time you feel like complaining about your work colleagues.  Don’t assume or generalize about their category.  Reach out and may be surprised to find out how quickly you can become unstuck by understanding where

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