Secret rules – What’s below the tip of the iceberg?

Foreigner | CC0

Welcome back! Have you improved media richness in your team communication or used a new way of digital communication? This week I’ll talk about culture in remote teams. Let me start with a little picture quiz. What does the featured image tell you?

Foreigner | CC0

Foreigner | CC0

Drinking a beer together remotely is difficult? Remote teams should also meet face-to-face from time to time and have fun together?

Both are true, but the point I’m trying to make is about the drinking game. The women in the center of the picture obviously knows the rules of this game. Also the man on the right side seems to know the rules. Do they really play to the same rules? They might be from the same state, but in their local communities they learned a variation of this game. Usually they won’t figure this out until they notice somebody plays different. Maybe the women on the left side doesn’t know the rules and feels excluded? And the man on the left side might know the rules, but could be offended since he doesn’t drink!?

With this simple example I’m trying to illustrate the different cultural norms and rules in a remote team, where different cultures and personalities come together. In reality it is even more complex. Rules and behaviors that you are used to from your childhood are implicit. You follow them without thinking about it. In some cases you are even not aware of them. This is below the tip of the iceberg.

While cultural differences are also a challenge in non-remote contexts, they impact remote contexts even more. I see two reasons for this.

  1. In a non-remote context you apply and adjust to the local cultural norms. In purple space you don’t know what are the local cultural norms.
  2. Reduced media richness makes it more difficult to recognize the different norms and behaviors. E.g. you might not see that somebody is shaking his head or starts to be disengaged.

To make it more practical I give you three examples of cultural differences and how they can complicate collaboration in a remote context.

Three examples of secret rules

  1. Probably not a big secret: many Asian cultures are more indirect and don’t say no. Instead silence might communicate disagreement. However, silence is harder to receive in a remote context. You might assume a bad connection, somebody is on mute or noise from somebody else „kills“ silence.
  2. Turn-taking is different across cultures. In Sweden it is very impolite to interrupt somebody in a conversation. They even wait for a little pause until they answer. In other cultures it is fully ok to interrupt. Now imagine a heated debate in a phone coference. The attendee from Sweden most probably won’t be heard and starts to be disengaged.
  3. Decision making is my favorite example. Germans like to come to a decision at the end of a meeting and then document this in a protocol. In other cultures a meeting is just the brainstorming of options and decisions might be made in the coffee break or at dinner. But how often did you have a remote coffee break or dinner? 🙂

How to solve it?

First the bad news: There’s no magic cookbook that offers a recipe for your context. It is a complex system, and as you might know complex systems have a non-deterministic behavior.

Now the good news: You can make your remote team aware of the secret rules and train it to cope with it. I have two actionable recommendations for you:

  1. Make your team aware that there are secret rules. What helped me is a little card game: BARNGA. It is a simulation game for exploring communication challenges across cultures. Give it a try. You’ll be amazed by its impact!
  2. Is a great practice from Lisette Sutherland – Create a team agreementCreate a team agreement

Over to you

Hope this post was helpful for you. I’m curious about your take-aways of the picture. Also would love to hear how the BARNGA game worked for you and if you have other recommendations how to make secret rules visible. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Have a nice week!