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Overcoming Cultural Blindness in Virtual Teams for Effective Collaboration

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

In the 21st century, globalization and the proliferation of technology in workplaces have led to the establishment of virtual teams. These teams are linked through computers and the internet, using a variety of digital platforms like Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, and other such technical platforms to sustain and enhance collaboration among its members. Such teams may operate from nearby physical locations or across diverse geographical, organizational, and cultural boundaries.

The growth of virtual teams is projected to continue. Results of a survey quoted in the June 2021 issue of the Harvard Business Review state that "89 percent of white-collar workers 'at least occasionally' complete projects in global virtual teams (GVTs), where team members are dispersed around the planet and rely on online tools for communication." Similarly, the 2022 Bureau of Labor Statistics report quoted that 34% of U.S. workers were in remote work.

However, a critical issue during such virtual meetings is the lack of knowledge and comprehension of cultural disparities among team members. According to Andy Molinsky at Brandeis University, "American companies have been 'global' for a very long time now. But many people inside companies still misperceive and misunderstand cultural differences."

Subsequently, for organizations to succeed and build effective collaboration, it is imperative to acknowledge and effectively manage the cultural subtleties within virtual teams. Often, the organizers of virtual meetings prioritize technical and scheduling issues, inadvertently overlooking the impact of cultural disparities, a phenomenon referred to as "cultural blindness." This article explores the concept of cultural blindness, examines the contributing factors, and recommends strategies to overcome this challenge and cultivate effective collaborations.

What is Cultural Blindness?

Cultural blindness, a social and psychological concept, refers to a lack of awareness and recognition of cultural differences within groups. This oversight leads to the imposition of the dominant group's values, beliefs, and modes of conduct onto others. This concept is best explained by an example of racial color blindness, "where individuals argue they don't see race, so they treat people of all different races in the exact same way." (cultural blindness). Likewise, cultural blindness enforces a standardized set of values and behavioral expectations on all team members, disregarding their cultural diversity, ethics, and beliefs.

Academic scholars have conceptualized cultural blindness and its variations. According to a citation in the Encyclopedia of Social Work, in 1989, Terry Cross introduced a detailed model of cultural competencies. Building on this foundation, the National Center for Cultural Competence developed a conceptual framework and illustrated it using a line graph:

a line graph of cultural competence progresion

Within this spectrum, stretching from culturally destructive practices to the achievement of cultural proficiency, cultural blindness is in a central position.

Furthermore, the American Psychology Association defines cultural blindness as: "…the inability to understand how particular matters might be viewed by people of different culture because of a rigid adherence to (…) one's own culture."

The online Psychology Dictionary states cultural blindness as: "the incapacity to comprehend how specific situations may be seen by individuals belonging to another culture due to a strict alignment with the viewpoints, outlooks, and morals of one's own society or culture."

From the above statements, it can be concluded that cultural blindness happens when individuals or organizations highlight the commonalities and uniformity of team members while neglecting their differences. Organizations that adhere to this perspective tend to adopt standardized policies and procedures, inadvertently promoting and perpetuating cultural blindness. Nevertheless, for organizations to prosper and build effective collaborations, they must understand the factors contributing to cultural blindness and know how to overcome them.

Factors Affecting Cultural Blindness

Multiple factors contributing to cultural blindness impact the collaborative efforts of virtual teams. However, a lack of comprehensive scientific data makes it difficult to quantify its effect. Yet, a few research studies have analyzed this issue and drawn some generalizations.

The review of 255 research studies titled Challenges and Barriers in Virtual Teams concluded that virtual work becomes significantly more complex due to cultural variances and individual communication preferences.

Research findings cited in the 2021 Harvard Business Review highlight the challenges of cultural differences in virtual collaborations. Gina Abudi has also summarized various research studies investigating how cultural differences influence virtual teams. In addition, Robert Vinaja's "Major Challenges in Multi-Cultural Virtual Teams" research extensively explores the factors that affect virtual team collaborations. This literature review states the challenges, difficulties, and some of the vital contributing factors to cultural blindness are:

Nevertheless, cultural blindness issues can be overcome and resolved with careful planning and appreciation of diversity. Here are several strategies for overcoming cultural disparities and building effective collaborations.

Overcoming Cultural Blindness in Virtual Teams

Effective collaboration within virtual teams can be achieved, and cultural blindness can be addressed by applying strategies such as the following:

In conclusion, addressing and overcoming cultural blindness in virtual meetings is essential for creating effective collaboration in today's diverse global world. By recognizing the issues of cultural blindness, investing in cross-cultural training, and implementing the suggestions specified in this article, organizations and individuals can overcome cultural blindness and create inclusive virtual meeting environments where diverse perspectives are discussed and valued. There are multiple challenges in virtual collaborations. However, embracing cultural diversity enhances teamwork and produces innovative and productive solutions. Ultimately, by prioritizing cultural awareness, organizations can forge stronger connections, build trust, and unlock the full potential of global collaboration in the virtual age.

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