Social Distance

I would be the first one to say that it is difficult to manage a team, especially a large one. In any group, there would always be some tension, confusion and argument since no organization is perfect.

One factor that contributes to conflicts within a group is the diversity of the people in the organization.  There are various differences among team members: background, nationality, and professional work experience, to name a few.  But all these differences must be managed for a group to work well as a team and achieve its goals.

There is one aspect of leadership that I find very important in keeping an exemplary team together—managing the social distance.

What is social distance? In general, it is the difference between our people’s backgrounds and skills set.

To illustrate properly what social distance is, let’s take a look at some examples.

In our Subic solar project, our solar engineering consultant is in India while our CSR person is in Subic. The social distance between these two is indeed a wide one.  One is an engineer and the other a social or political scientist. The Indian engineer looks at numbers from the designs while our CSR person has to empathize with people in the villages. Two totally different perspectives but with one objective and within one team.  Managing the social distance between people with different functions, background and personality is indeed a great task!

Social distance should be the first focus of any manager. It is essential to narrow the possible gap between people in the team due to diversity. Social distance can be narrowed if the organization members are conscious of the group’s structure, the processes, the language each member uses, the identity of the members and the technology being utilized.

The team leader must first recognize that there is a social distance between team members especially if members are of different nationalities or cultural backgrounds.

One must learn the culture of the nationalities with the people he or she will be working with. I usually study a bit of the history, a bit of the music and a lot on the sense of humor of these nationalities. Social gatherings always provide a good platform to socially integrate and celebrate diversity, which, hopefully, will spill over into the workplace.

One must find that equilibrium within the organization where individuals will be comfortable working together. How do we find this equilibrium? First, we must be clear about the organizational structure, as well as the roles of each team member.

For example, the team leader is what he or she is: the leader.  As a leader, the person must coach, cajole, inspire, direct and lead the team to achieve its objective. I often use the term “servant leadership” to denote the need for leaders to be useful to the team. Managers are coaches and as coaches, it is imperative to adopt an open-door policy. This kind of policy removes barriers and minimize cliques or power turfs.

Once the structure is clear to the team, then the team has to agree on the processes or work flow. The team must ask these questions: How do we go about executing our scope of work? How do we monitor and control? How do we procure the things we need?  When and how often do we meet?

Finding the equilibrium also means defining the organization’s outputs or milestones that count and are worthy of recognition and compensation.  The manner by which these milestones are achieved is less important, and, therefore makes the difference in cultures less important, as well.

Communication is key to managing the social distance, too.  Given the technology these days, a group must agree on the technological tools to use to communicate and each team member must have adequate knowledge of these tools.

For an organization with team members from different countries, it is useful to use English as the primary language. Although I would agree that the primary language is only a secondary consideration, as what is more essential is the ability of people to tell a story. In the past, I trained people to use the telephone.  These days, I am thinking of introducing drama classes for better story-telling.

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