Creative thinking is all about challenging conventional wisdom to generate innovative ideas and solutions. Critical to the growth of any business, we explore ways to foster creative thinking within a culturally diverse team of remote workers.

For this week’s blog post we had the pleasure of speaking with James Alderton, the Director and Principal Consultant at Bamboo Bridge. James’ expertise in leadership, team development, and business operations was acquired over a 20 year career as regional director for Fortune 500 companies while based in Shanghai, Hong Kong, San Francisco and Bahrain. Let’s just say, James knows a thing or two about leading distributed multi-cultural teams.

“The challenge for team leaders is knowing how to bring out the natural creativity that’s really in all of us. Regardless of race, religion, gender, education, or socio-economic status – we were all born creative. But often our creativity is suppressed from a very young age as we’re taught to conform to social norms and society’s expectations,” James explains.

How To Foster Creative Thinking in Culturally Diverse Remote Teams

James goes on to add that another challenge comes from the fact that the majority of techniques and tools used to apply creative thinking have originated from western cultures. Using formal logic and analytical reasoning in problem solving, along with a direct communication style where people openly express their opinions, is not the cultural norm in the rest of the world.

“The leader of a culturally diverse team needs to have a good understanding of cultural differences, and to be resourceful and flexible if they are to succeed in introducing creative thinking practices in a team environment – irrespective of whether they’re office-based or remote,” he says. “Team members need to be given the right environment for creativity to become entrenched in individual and team behaviour.”

As James explains, there are 4 key enablers to establishing an environment conducive to creative thinking: Team Trust, Productive Conflict, Effective Communication, and a Culture of Creativity. We explore each of these further below.

Building Team Trust

Trust lies at the foundation of any cohesive, effective team. However, as James points out, building deep trust can differ across cultures. “In many cultures, trust only occurs after team members get to know one another socially. Whereas in western cultures, it tends to be business first and then we get to know one another socially, if there’s time.”

To build trust, team leaders of culturally diverse teams need to create opportunities for the team to socialise and have fun together. However, socialising and building camaraderie is easier when people work together in an office – organising a team lunch to celebrate a birthday, or dinner to celebrate a team achievement followed by 10-pin bowling, a movie, or karaoke. But in a remote workplace where team members are co-located across the globe, these physical forms of socialising are rare.

Instead, socialising has to be done online most of the time. Remote team members need to leverage business tools like Skype chat or Slack, or social networking channels like Facebook; creating a virtual water-cooler where co-workers can drop in and see ‘what’s going on with person x’.

Team leaders can also encourage personal connections by starting online meetings with a ‘take 5’, allowing team members to talk openly about what’s been happening in their lives on a professional and personal level.

Retreats are another great way to bring remote team members together to strengthen relationships and build trust. Quarterly or annual get-togethers, whatever suits best, either at a central office location or a destination where the team can enjoy fun activities together.

Check out companies like Tortuga Retreats and Rebel+Connect who specialise in creating custom retreat experiences to bring remote teams together.

Encouraging Productive Conflict

Creative thinking stems not only from sharing ideas and voicing opinions, but also from disagreeing and engaging in lively debate. However, disagreeing with another team member in an open forum can be very uncomfortable for some people. This is why establishing a solid foundation of trust must come first, so members feel at ease engaging in this type of communication.

James suggests another way to encourage productive conflict in a team is to set out the ground rules for the way in which team members communicate and behave with one another on a day to day basis, and during meetings.

“This involves discussing and agreeing on the behaviour that is going to be acceptable (and encouraged) and that which is unacceptable. This is important to encourage collaboration and prevent issues from coming up that could undermine team trust and cohesion,” he explains. “And when team meetings take place, everyone should participate and have the opportunity to speak up.”

This is of particular importance in hybrid teams consisting of office-based and remote workers, where the remote members often feel left out of conversations because they’re not physically present with their office-based coworkers. Team leaders in this situation must ensure that no one is left out of the loop or it can lead to unproductive conflict.

Productive conflict and an open exchange of ideas are important elements of creative thinking but they will only happen when everyone is involved and parties feel equally heard and respected.

Communicating Effectively

While English is the dominant language for international business, it’s not always the native language for every member of a distributed remote team. Sometimes we forget how difficult it is for others to pick up on the subtleties of the language or to understand us when we speak too fast, or when we pepper our conversation with slang or colloquial expressions.

In western cultures, we find silent pauses in conversation awkward. But in some societies, a silent pause between speakers is common and indicates that what was said is being respectfully considered.

Body language and facial expression, even through a video call, are important elements of effective communication but can mean different things in different cultures. For example, displaying your emotions can be considered immature and unprofessional.

James stresses the importance of good communication, suggesting to always speak slowly, keep it simple, verify your message has been understood, and be aware of your biases.

An understanding of the different communication styles is paramount to communicating effectively across multi-cultural teams. And once again, when there are roadblocks in communication among team members, there will be roadblocks to creative thinking.

This article provides some additional tips to overcome language and communication barriers in multicultural teams.

Creating a Culture of Creativity

When it comes to creating the right culture for creativity, James says the “top-down, command-and-control style of management”, still the norm in some countries, is not good for fostering creativity.

Team members who have never been exposed to working in modern organisations promoting free-flowing communication and information sharing have no experience in taking initiative and calculated risks. Those who have worked in companies with a transparent management style are more engaged, empowered and energised team members.

Transparency builds respect, trust, and loyalty in a team. In turn, this leads to better problem solving and collaboration, as well as healthier work relationships, and a stronger work ethic. All of which are conducive to creative thinking.

Our blog article, Transparency a Key to Success in Remote-Friendly Companies, discusses the ways in which companies can be more transparent and remove the organisational layers to open up lines of communication and collaboration.

In summary, creative thinking needs the right environment. James recommends team leaders seek training in coaching skills and creative problem solving techniques, and for team members, training to improve their inter-cultural communication skills.

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