The physical distance that separates global teams presents a challenge enough, and yet too often we compound this literal distance with emotional distance. For every hundred miles a team is apart, an emotional disconnect accompanies their separation. The fact of the matter is that combating this emotional distance is a crucial component of maintaining an effective, productive global team. In other words, establishing empathy between members of a global team is critical.

Empathy can sometimes be an overwhelming word, just as the idea of developing a positive relationship with a person on the opposite side of the globe can feel overwhelming, too. Fortunately, empathy can be broken down into three connected components:

  • Cognitive empathy is typically summarized as “putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes”; it is when we imagine ourselves in the situation of another person. 
  • Emotional empathy is the most common understanding of empathy. We can consider it the “next step” after cognitive empathy, as emotional empathy is feeling or connecting with the emotions of another person, particularly to better understand what they are going through at a given point in time.
  • Behavioral empathy is, as the name suggests, a component of our behavior. It is where we demonstrate our established cognitive and emotional empathy by treating others with kindness, respect, and care. Behavioral empathy is how we show we understand another’s position.

In a global environment, the physical distance between team members presents a large barrier to establishing empathy. This physical distance also generates three specific subcategories of difference that, if not handled appropriately, will compound the empathic struggle: temporal differences, cultural differences, and social differences.

Temporality is best summarized as the way an individual interprets, values, and manages time. Because temporality tends to vary in regions across the world, global teams are often composed of numerous members who do not share temporality, which can lead to disagreements both big and small. For example, in western countries like the US and the UK, the clock interpretation of time dominates, where time is viewed “as a scarce commodity.”  Specifically, this leads to time being treated as a resource that can be measured and broken down; there is emphasis on a person being productive within a short period. In India, on the other hand, a harmonic interpretation of time is more common, where time is viewed as “an aspect of dynamic, living systems that needs to be explored qualitatively”; every second is seen as having natural value. Immediately we notice a difference from the US and UK’s quantitative and India’s qualitative interpretation of time. As a result, without temporal empathy, conflicts may arise between team members from different regions if they do not discuss personal temporality from the get-go.

A common trait of most global teams is, of course, that they are composed of people from different cultures. Because of this inherent diversity, it is crucial that team members make an effort to educate themselves on the different cultures represented in their team. This process is the establishment of cultural empathy, and it will ultimately increase awareness surrounding what potential “conflicts” may arise throughout a working relationship and how these conflicts can be mediated. Not only that, but cultural empathy often leads to cultural appreciation, where a person sees the inherent value and beauty in cultures different than their own. There are simple ways to build cultural empathy: for example, a team leader might host an “international day,” where employees can present information about their culture if they feel comfortable doing so. Another simple technique is to incorporate multiple holiday greetings throughout the year (i.e. more than just “Merry Christmas”), such as wishing a Jewish coworker “Shana tovah!” on Rosh Hashanah.

The aforementioned “social differences” might also be called “lifestyle differences,” and in some ways the establishment of social empathy falls in the intersection of temporal and cultural empathy. Different communities, different cities, different countries all have different expectations in regard to the work vs home division. For some societies, it is expected that family commitments be sacrificed for work. In others, it is more likely that work commitments will be sacrificed for family. Social empathy thus involves understanding how emphasis is placed differently on work vs home depending on region and not penalizing global team members for how they prioritize. It is also important to understand social empathy on the individual level. For example, a man caring for his sick, elderly mother will likely have to put home commitments first; other members of his team should be aware of his situation—as much information as he feels comfortable sharing—and be respectful of it.

I have discussed the primary components of empathy as well as the three areas of empathy most important for global teams to concentrate on. But how can global teams increase their empathy? Are there certain actions they should take or attitudes they can pursue? Fortunately, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

1. We must view cultural differences as opportunities.

In some ways, this tip can be interpreted as a mental shift. Sometimes we focus too intensely on conflicts that arise out of cultural differences instead of perceiving these differences in a more accurate and more optimistic way: they are an opportunity to broaden our horizons! People from different cultures bring new perspectives to the table, which allows for increased flow of new ideas and potentially even improvement of the status quo.

2. We must avoid assumptions and stereotypes.

At first glance, this tip seems obvious. “Of course we shouldn’t stereotype people! Of course we shouldn’t make assumptions about their personality or culture!” And indeed, we shouldn’t do any of those things. But the process of avoiding assumptions, particularly amongst global teams where cultural diversity is heightened, runs even deeper. Not only must we avoid assumptions at face value, but we must avoid assumptions—for example—during a meeting. If a particular team member doesn’t speak often, rather than assuming they don’t have much to contribute, we might instead consider that they wait for specific points in conversation to offer input. Always give others the benefit of the doubt!

3. We must develop more and stronger opportunities for employee connection.

It is one thing to preach about the importance of empathy; it is another for there to be opportunities presented to help employees establish this empathy! The most common method for this tip tends to be virtual meetings, be it an official meeting where everyone together discusses company goals or a more casual event where team members simply chat about their interests and backgrounds. There are plenty of fun icebreakers out there that provide an effective and entertaining way for global employees to connect with one another.

I hope this breakdown has helped us all better understand what empathy is, what elements of empathy are most crucial to global teams, and what we can do to improve our empathy. Now go forth and build empathy!

Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization.

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