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What It Means To Be Nice: Why The Golden Rule Isn't A Good Global Team-building Model

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Five years ago, Google decided to embark on a quest to build the "perfect team." It came to be known as Project Aristotle, a highly orchestrated study that involved 180 teams, hundreds of interviews, and mountains of data. Google's People Operations department combed through spreadsheet after spreadsheet to attempt to find correlations among productivity, work satisfaction, skill levels, and educational backgrounds. Nothing stood out, even when groups of nearly identical make-ups had drastically different levels of effectiveness.

''At Google, we're good at finding patterns,'' Abeer Dubey, manager in Google's People Analytics division said in the New York Times article. ''There weren't strong patterns here.''

Yet, after a year of analysis, a trend did emerge. Those teams that offered a high level of "psychological safety" consistently performed better on a variety of tasks. In other words, these successful teams created an environment of acceptance, one that encouraged feedback, participation, and risk-taking among members without fear of being humiliated.

To put it yet another way, nice teams finished first.

Of course, those of us who train global executives and multicultural teams already knew this, even if we didn't have four years of extensive Google data to back it up. When it comes to managing global firms immersed in cultural differences, the challenge of being nice isn't why, but how.

After all, "nice" is relative, especially in the cultural setting. The Golden Rule of "Treat others as you would like to be treated" gets completely thrown out the window when you consider how much more difficult it is to create cohesive teams when "nice" means something different to everyone at the table.

Take these examples:

An American woman dines with her husband at a highly rated Iraqi restaurant in Los Angeles. The server does not address her, nor does he make eye contact with her or smile, and he directs all questions--including the one for her order--through her husband.

"Rude," says the American.
"Respectful," says the Iraqi.

A U.S. operations manager develops a reward system based on risk-taking and individual accomplishments. The program is met with resistance in Singapore, where detailed execution and team-based recognition are the preferred demonstration of skills and community pride.

"Honorable and safe," says the Singaporean.
"Faint-hearted and high maintenance," says the American.

A production team in Germany is having communication problems with its supporting teams in India, who, despite doing exactly what they are told, are not innovating or delivering to their collective ability. Their processes could be improved, but the Indian staff clearly is uncomfortable with the German way of "telling it like it is."

"Efficient and honest communication style; shows integrity," says the German.
"Disruptive, disrespectful and suicidal," says the Indian.

While it's true that being nice and feeling psychologically safe may translate to different behavior throughout the world, Google's Aristotle Project underscores the importance of trust and understanding in interpersonal relationships throughout an organization. It demonstrates the value of being heard, recognized, and accepted as a universal concept along human lines and bottom lines alike. Not because "nice guys win", but because increasing a company's cultural intelligence also increases their collective one.

This is why the role of cultural mediation firms is so important, and why they are continually used to train upper-level executive teams as well as the teams on the ground. This training helps create a common understanding through cultural context and helps provide a safe environment for global teams to decode the cultural expectations hidden behind behaviors that we otherwise would judge as disrespectful, inefficient, or unprofessional.

It may be comforting to know that the desire to be nice is a prevalent theme, and it's one that allows the real work of understanding to happen. In this case, actions do speak louder than words; those who masterfully translate the common spoken language will only build barriers if they do not also masterfully translate common cultural behaviors. While language builds vocabulary, cultural understanding builds trust. And trust is what strong global teams are built upon.

And there's more. Companies that lead with a global mindset and invest in cultural intelligence training create a unified spirit that not only attracts and keeps top global talent, but also engages in wider global business.

"We've proven that teams who like each other clearly do a better job," said Daphne Magna, Global Bridger for Professional Passport. "As a matter of fact, the more we share with each other, the more we begin to trust each other. I haven't met an employee yet who doesn't want a more efficient workday with less stress, more productivity and fruitful global relationships."

Magna, and other cultural mediators like her build customized tools and training to help deconstruct the communication challenges and raise cultural awareness and connection. Expecting every culture to speak the same language isn't realistic, but helping them break down the barriers to create a "nice" working environment--using visual aids, lexicons, and storyboards--certainly is. In fact, it's easier than most companies think.

"By exploring 'nice' with cultural tool kits and training, employees will be better equipped to resolve everyday situations productively," added Magna. "Teams throughout the world are simultaneously fighting for independence and relevance in the global economy. What better way to ensure cohesion than by aligning their differences to celebrate what they have in common."