Geographic distance can lead to psychological distance. Generally, the further away colleagues are, the less connected we may feel. Cultural differences may also lead to psychological distance because we feel closer to people who are similar or who work in a way that makes sense to us.
If we feel psychologically distant from our colleagues, we view them as very abstract and not very unique. We may use words like ‘them over there,’ ‘they are all like that,’ or negative cultural stereotypes to describe the colleagues in the other location. In a mild version of the abstraction, we do not feel connected and have low levels of trust. At an more harmful level, we feel a noticeable us vs them with serious conflict that impacts results.
In my book Virtual Teams Across Cultures: Create Successful Teams Around the World, I discuss why this happens with Psychotherapist Claudia Crisan.
You can download a free excerpt from the book here: Virtual Teams Across Cultures Exerpt-Between Locations
Now that we understand what happens psychologically, what can we do? Our goal is to move from abstraction to knowing so that our colleague is not just American but is Julia, the person with unique ideas and a passion for results. We want to move from psychological distance to psychological closeness. Here are some ideas:
- Learn about the other’s culture. When we do not understand another culture, the behaviors of our colleagues appear unusual and do not make sense. By learning about another culture, we begin to understand the values, norms and move closer to the person through the cultural diversity as it is no longer a barrier. Through this process, we learn about our own cultural influences as well.
- Prioritize cultural diversity on the team. Culturally diverse teams have experts on the team who can talk about their country – the team members themselves. Create opportunities to explore each culture on the team. For instance, once a month, a team member presents their country. Or once a week take a topic and see how it is expressed in each country, such as education system, customer relations, giving feedback, etc.
- Learn about the colleague. When we feel psychologically distant from our colleague, we are less likely to trust, support and rely on that colleague. Spend time together virtually to get to know each other. Organize virtual coffee/tea breaks and see what you have in common. We feel closeness when we identify with someone else such as ‘we are both parents,’ ‘we both like to skydiver,’ or ‘we are both committed to this project.’
- Spend time together having fun. Go beyond the task list and agendas. Celebrate birthdays, share local holidays and recognize team achievements. Watch a movie together from one of the countries of someone on the team.
- Develop your capacity to be curious. We are trying to break down walls and build bridges with distant colleagues. By showing genuine interest in the other, you start to treat them as more than just an email address.
- Increase the frequency of communication. Researchers found that people felt close to their distant colleagues when they had frequent communication, and I do not mean more emails. Morning hellos, quick chats, shared pictures. Also, conversation about work can help people feel closer to each other as personal information also seeps in.
With some effort, colleagues can feel closer than they really are!