Just about everybody agrees that cultural awareness is critical for successful collaboration and nurturing a constructive team environment. Does working together across social media make us more culturally aware, or does it reinforce stereotypes – or both? The transition to a more social business in a global setting is not without its challenges, particularly where employees work in virtual teams.

Does global connectivity equal true and constructive global understanding?

Team members must learn to strike the right balance between professional and personal conversation in order to create a positive and productive atmosphere in internal social networks. Employees may find mutual ground and build stronger, more trusting relationships if they are allowed to speak freely about non-work related issues. They then have the opportunity to explore their similarities and differences; to expand their horizons through the experiences of one another. However, a common language, similar professional background and shared interests can easily be mistaken for having the same values, especially in the absence of physical presence.

Do conversations have to remain safely about work and the weather?

No, but it does mean that employees in global virtual teams have to understand that family structures, perception of friendship and reciprocity, prevalent religious beliefs and level of religiosity, importance of political views and even views of work-life balance can vary dramatically, even with people who you perceive as being similar to yourself. The ability to pose open questions and the knowledge that one is treading in differentiated territory is important to leaving the conversation with a friend rather than a quietly offended colleague.

...and if there is a conflict?

Where collaboration results in conflict, it must be remedied quickly through openly talking about the hurt sensibilities. Disagreements should not have the opportunity to reinforce negative stereotypes.

Is it always about culture?

No! While cultural differences can cause misunderstandings, culture should not be used as a shield. Personalities often clash, and sometimes somebody actually did something out of line.

What about my own stereotypes?

Nobody joins a global virtual team with a completely open mind. We are often aware of stereotypes before even speaking with counterparts from other areas of the world. Employees may take courses to teach them how to interact with people in other countries. Remember that you are talking to a private individual and not a representative of a foreign culture. You never know if your counterpart fits in or if they even agree with the perceived norm. All societies are pluralistic to some extent. Keeping up with current events is also helpful. People appreciate if you know what is relevant to their world. While background knowledge is good, understanding the limits of your knowledge is critical.

Don’t ignore cultural differences – celebrate them. You can’t pretend everyone is exactly the same. Besides, ignoring the nuances of culture, personality or experience doesn’t serve anyone well. Give team members opportunities to learn what it is about them they share, as well as what makes them unique.

What experience have you had with social networking inside an organization? Share your thoughts in the comments!