Managing and Thriving at Work in Today’s Multicultural Environment
It’s not unusual nowadays to work with people from different cultures and across time zones. But it can sometimes be challenging: even when the words are familiar, the meaning may be completely misinterpreted (even in our own country!).
Case in point: several years ago, I moved from Chicago to North Carolina and completely underestimated the cultural differences. One day I needed a report from one of my team members and asked “Could you run me the xyz report?” My team member responded: “I don’t care to.” I was shocked. From my upbringing in the midwest, this translated as “no, I don’t want to.” After further questioning, I came to realize the response meant the exact opposite: “yes, I don’t mind.”
So whether working with people from different parts of the same country, working in the U.S. with people from other lands, or working in a country other than one’s own, there are a few things one can do to survive and thrive in the global environment.
Observe the Culture, and Respect the Differences
Oftentimes the “other” is viewed as weird, strange (or even, in extreme cases, very distasteful). But success in the global environment relies on an open mind and ability to see, hear or even smell the “other“as simply different. For instance, grocery shopping in Europe and seeing unrefrigerated eggs was at first disturbing for me. But after investigating, I learned that European producers maintain the cuticle on the egg that offers a natural protection.
So when traveling to a new place, follow the advice of seasoned travelers, and try to live like the locals. Take public transportation, shop at local markets, or attend a worship service. I haven’t loved every place I’ve visited, but I always find something to appreciate. On a trip to Istanbul, I realized I would never want to live there because of the massive amount of people in a relatively small space. But I found that I enjoyed the melodic sound of the Islamic call to prayer that projected from the hundreds of minarets throughout the city.
Seek to Understand and be Understood
All good communication training includes advice to ask questions and paraphrase for understanding. Nowhere is this more important than when working with different cultures. For example, in Japan, “yes” means “I understand,” but does not always indicate agreement.
Face to face interactions are always easier where body language and facial clues can enhance the message. But time and budget constraints may prevent always being able to sit across the table from team members in different countries. In addition, much of today’s business is conducted over email and by telephone, while technology can be leveraged to share data and video.
The key to success, when using video and phone, is to allow enough time for participants to ask questions. My general rule for a one-hour meeting is to limit the agenda to one or two main points that can be discussed in enough detail so that every team member leaves with the same understanding. I’ve also found that when meetings are longer than that, people start losing their concentration, and begin checking email or getting distracted. This is especially true when operating across multiple time zones where attendees may be participating at very late or very early hours.
Focus on Streamlining Comprehension
Global business is often conducted in English, which is great for Americans who often speak only one language. It’s easy to assume that European team members, who often speak multiple languages, are comfortable doing business in English. But it’s helpful to respect the fact that they are in fact thinking, hearing and speaking in a language other than their mother tongue. This respect can be shown by speaking more slowly and limiting the use of culture-specific references (Americans tend to use a lot of sports analogies — indeed, I found myself almost calling this section “Leveling the Playing Field”). An even better way is to learn some foreign words and phrases in the team members’ languages and use those at the beginning and end of one’s communications, whether written or verbal; a “danke,” “merci” or “grazie” goes a long way!
Also, there’s nothing pleasant about a conference call where people are talking over each other, and participants can’t find a break to ask their own questions or make comments. It’s worth bearing in mind that people in a room tend to address comments and questions to other people in the room — and forget that there are people on the phone.
The lesson? Good facilitation enables effective meetings, and a few helpful techniques make the experience better for everyone:
- First, put a picture of the person who is on the phone actually on the phone speaker to remind people to speak into it, and to the person.
- Second, appoint a “question facilitator” in each physical room who can text to the other facilitator(s) when a participant wants to ask a question or make a statement.
- Alternatively, to ensure no one participant has a particular advantage, have everyone call into the meeting separately and perhaps have no two participants together in one room.
Commonality = Reaching Collective Goals
The most effective teams share a common purpose, and commonality can be created through the development of a shared vision or via a mission statement. This reciprocity can be reinforced not only verbally but through sharing mutual experiences. So try learning something new together, since when people learn, they go from being vulnerable and unsure of their knowledge or skills to being confident. And not only do the team members then share the common experience of a training session but they may also learn more about each other, and deepen their respect of their colleagues.
That said, if opportunities to learn together may not come about so often, celebrating successes together can happen frequently. In my current position, I spend a lot of time in phone/video meetings between the U.S. West Coast and Central Europe, which comprises a nine hour time zone difference. But we make sure to celebrate our successes with a “champagne toast” via (for instance) mimosas at 7 a.m. in San Francisco and an aperitif at 4 p.m. in Basel!
Working with global teams can be challenging, but having an attitude of openness, curiosity and trying new things can be both humbling and invigorating. (By the way, those European eggs have a more vibrant yellow-orange color than American eggs and make prettier — and, in my opinion, tastier — scrambled eggs.) Savor the differences!21