COVID-19 has forced unique challenges on American managers tasked with leading multicultural work teams: Its impact on how we do work, where we do work and how we define work gets deeper every week. The very real and immediate need to address the technological requirements of forced online work options grabs the attention, but finding IT solutions without addressing the cultural and emotional impact of COVID-19 on your employees is, at best, a half-baked quick fix.
The rise of COVID-19 and all of its uncertainties in terms of how to stay safe and healthy has been a difficult puzzle, to be sure, for managers with a primary U.S.-centric workforce. However, if a multinational company is now attempting to maintain productivity within a global workforce, especially utilizing virtual work teams composed of employees in many different countries, the challenges are multiplied exponentially.
Why? After all, these teams worked together virtually long before COVID came along. Of all the things we need to worry about, why would the virtual world of work that already existed be an issue? The answer, of course, isn’t really about the IT setup. The issue is that our world is made of many cultures and one of the most powerful influences on productivity and innovation in any culture is the amount of emotional energy and motivation an employee brings to their work. In times of great loss and uncertainty, it is an individual’s cultural background that drives their reaction to threats and challenges, and thus it is necessary for a leader to understand how their team members are reacting to COVID-19.
In my professional career, it has been my privilege to travel to, and work in, more than 50 countries. I’ve come to believe every culture has similar emotional needs regarding our universal desire for a sense of safety and security for ourselves and our loved ones. This desire seems to boil down to a sense of predictability and control over our immediate environment.
We think nothing of getting into a car or boarding a train or airplane because we believe complete strangers will obey the same traffic laws, follow the safety rules and also be well trained and competent to drive a train or fly a plane. This is an example of our belief in predicting the behavior of others, which then allows us to trust in their safe behavior. Likewise, we leave our homes every day, safe in the belief that we are in control of our lives, that our jobs will be safe as long as we perform, and that we won’t get sick if we live a healthy lifestyle. Control is achieved by doing what we believe is required so that nothing changes unless we choose to change it.
But COVID has taken much of our sense of predictability and control away from us. Worse, it has eroded our belief that our leaders and health-care professionals have the answers we want.
Various cultural differences become much more pronounced in such a situation. For example, group-centered cultures (common in most Asian countries) will follow the directions of their government and accept stringent restrictions on movement and behavior “for the common good.” They won’t understand the resistance to strict behavioral limits that evolves in an individualistic culture like the U.S. Even European cultures are more adaptive to the idea of group deprivation for the benefit of all versus the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Canada. This likely comes from the historical experiences Europeans shared due to multiple wars occurring in their countries over many generations. Likewise, Latin American countries will be less willing to follow government directives, but for different reasons. Unlike the individualistic culture that drives resistance in the U.S., Latin Americans have a history of suffering under abusive regimes, which has resulted in a deep distrust of government. People are less willing to make sacrifices simply because their history suggests that the elite don’t make the same sacrifices and will ultimately benefit from the suffering of the majority.
All of this is certainly an oversimplification of these very diverse and complicated cultural differences. But the key message is that managers and senior leaders must recognize the vast array of responses their virtual work teams will have as we continue this bizarre pandemic journey. People are experiencing micro-losses, key losses and devastating losses all over the world. An effective leadership team will be exploring the extent of these losses and developing a strategy to support their people.
Micro-losses are those that occur frequently and are individually insignificant but accumulate over time. For example, the loss of a weekly dinner date for a two-career couple, the loss of a last-minute decision to see a movie with friends because of fear, the sense of concern that occurs when one goes grocery shopping, and the odd feelings one experiences due to barriers or required social distancing. Even the loss of one’s personal style due to wearing a mask. These add up over time to create a sense of loss of control over the little things we used to take for granted.
Key losses are things like the inability of children to have play dates with friends or attend daycare, school or piano lessons, the loss of visiting loved ones in a different city, the loss of seeing work colleagues in the office, the loss of vacation travel and attending parties or religious functions.
Devastating losses include the inability of a child to attend university physically; the inability to have a big family wedding; the loss of one’s job, career or company; the inability to visit an ill loved on in the hospital or a nursing home; the loss of your personal health from complications of COVID-19; and, of course, the death of a loved one.
Every culture has instilled in people an array of responses to these losses, and every culture offers various philosophical and spiritual attitudes toward such losses. Some countries offer financial safety nets as well as social support, while others do not. Effectively managing a multicultural work team requires managers and senior leaders to understand the variety of issues and responses present in a team at any given moment and, most important, to have multiple options identified and in place so the company can effectively and compassionately respond to the needs of its people in these increasingly difficult times.