When multiple cultures come together on a team, creating a sense of belonging is especially important.
Jack was facing a predicament that is common to many of the leaders I coach.
Jack is a senior vice president in a global technology company. An American, he leads a team of workers based in the U.S., the Philippines, and Singapore. Jack confided that he was unhappy with the performance of his team , but couldn’t pinpoint why things were breaking down. He had even recently lost several workers to other companies.
After interviewing the members of his team, the reasons became clear to me. The sense of belonging among the international team members — their feeling of acceptance and inclusion in the team — was suffering.
They reported that Jack and his American colleagues were insensitive to the cultural differences in their living situations, often demanding they be on camera during video calls, even after they’d expressed that conditions weren’t ideal for video at the moment. They would often call out the background noise of children and other family members, making them feel embarrassed. When engaging in pre-business conversation, Jack and his American colleagues made them feel out of the loop and excluded with their talk of American sports.
The team also highlighted a dynamic I often see with the leaders I coach and their teams: Their relationship with Jack felt purely transactional. Did Jack even know anything about them that wasn’t related to business?
This dynamic didn’t improve on the infrequent occasions that Jack met with his team in person. Although he often traveled to the Philippines and Singapore, from their perspective, Jack “parachuted” in and rushed them through back-to-back meetings about project updates and troubleshooting. He also wouldn’t let team members give details or background information, cutting people off with “Got it, got it, got it” when he’d heard enough.
While many companies try to fix retention issues with higher pay, greater financial perks, or “thank you” bonuses, they overlook the fundamental need for belonging. Belonging is a human emotional need for security and support, a sense of acceptance, inclusion, and connection for being part of a group. According to research from McKinsey, 51 percent of people who leave their jobs do so because they feel a lack of belonging, and 54 percent said they left their companies because they didn’t feel valued.
Creating belonging can be especially challenging — but crucial — for global teams, when the nuances of cultural differences and physical distance leave much more room for misunderstanding and exclusion.
Here are some steps Jack took to better foster belonging for his team.
He became aware of his own cultural background
To better understand the nuances of the cultures represented on his team, Jack had to first understand his own cultural background and how it informs how he engages with others. I encouraged Jack to have a “beginner’s mind” and learn about others’ perspectives and experiences with openness and curiosity. This mindset also helped him develop empathy.
He went off autopilot
Like many leaders, Jack’s interactions with his team were focused on business tasks and goals alone. But creating belonging requires an awareness of how our words and actions affect others, and we can’t have this heightened awareness when we’re on autopilot. I encouraged Jack to “raise his human antenna” and scan for the nonverbal cues he may often miss — the changes in body language, facial expressions, and tone that clue us into how people are feeling.
He led by example by adapting his own behaviors
Those who feel most included are those who fit in dominant norms. They have the ease of not having to adapt — and often don’t even notice that others are struggling. On the other hand, it’s typically people who feel excluded who have to adapt to the norms of the dominant group. I encouraged Jack to flip the script: As a leader, who holds the responsibility to adapt and shift styles?
Armed with a better understanding of his team members’ cultures, newfound empathy, and a raised “human antenna,” Jack adapted and established new norms. He allowed people to stay off-camera and never called attention to background noise. During one-on-ones, he listened more deeply, letting his employees share as much information as they felt necessary without interrupting. And he always started meetings with a relationship-building conversation that had nothing to do with work (and less often about American sports).
After a few months, I checked in with Jack’s team once again. They reported that they felt much more listened to, appreciated, and valued. They had started to feel like they belonged.
Creating a sense of belonging among a global team can be challenging, but the rewards are more than worth the effort. Be willing to embrace a beginner’s mind, develop empathy, go off autopilot, and be the one to adapt, and your team can feel that belonging, despite cultural differences.
This article was originally posted on Inc.com