Companies & Industries

Crossing the Cultural Chasm


Keeping communication clear and consistent with team members from other countries isn't easy, says author Maya Hu-Chan. But the rewards are huge

Long past the era of the "sleeping giant," China is the epicenter of an industrial and economic transformation whose effect is being felt everywhere—from the boardrooms of Boston to the banks of London. Global systems are shifting so dramatically in China and other emerging countries that we're all challenged to come up with new skills to work across cultures. What are the implications for management communication?

My friend and respected colleague Maya Hu-Chan and I reflected on this and other cross-cultural questions recently when we were the keynote speakers at the Global Leadership Conference in Shanghai. She's the co-author (with Cathy Greenberg, Alistair Robertson, and me) of Global Leadership: The Next Generation. Maya conducts workshops on cross-cultural communication (in both English and Chinese) around the world and has worked with more than 3,000 leaders in global corporations. You can contact her at mayahuchan@earthlink.net, or visit her Web site at mayahuchan.com. She and I recently spoke about the challenges of leading global teams. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

What do managers tell you about the challenges they're facing in this new global business environment?

It's sink or swim, and swimming the Pacific is only one of the cultural marathon events for a modern CEO. We're in an era of interwoven global cultures, each with its own character and subtleties. Over the past three years, I've surveyed over 1,200 global managers of multinational companies in telecommunications, financial services, manufacturing, and engineering/construction industries. I asked them, "What are your greatest challenges?" Ultimately, it boils down to a few areas: cultural gaps, lack of trust in each other, failure to value each other's skills, and the big one: We just don't communicate effectively.

Doesn't speaking English make it easier?

Global team members have a hard time understanding one another even when they're all speaking the same language. One global manager found it was hard for his team members in China and India to say no. He would think they were agreeing and move forward, only to find out later that they disagreed. Another manager was amazed at how many ways people found to say no, and yet it always sounded like yes to him!

To stay on course, you've got to be constantly asking yourself, "Am I reading this right?" Even if everyone speaks English, you have to test your assumptions. In a group situation, encourage everyone to slow down their speech, speak clearly, and periodically take a stop to recap what has been said or decided upon.

Communication styles come into play, right? For example, being up front is prized in the U.S. but may be considered rude in some other cultures.

There is the issue of "face." For example, Marshall, I have known you for over 20 years. I'm sure that most of your friends and clients would agree that your communication style is sometimes in their face!

But seriously, American culture rewards outspokenness. In this English-dominant world, an American may admit point blank that he/she doesn't speak another language—no big deal. People from other countries are proud to have studied English from grade school on, and are likely to fall silent rather than risk "losing face" when they realize that they aren't being understood, or if they don't completely understand what's being said.

To turn this dynamic around, cultivate an intellectual grace and kindness which will allow you to ensure that a point is understood without shaming your colleague. Get on the same playing field by being curious, with respect. Thank your listener for speaking in English, and allow silence for him to reflect on the content on the table.

Are there other solutions to the communication problem?

For starters, cut the slang. Using too many culturally narrow expressions, idioms, colloquialisms, and even too much humor can cause your message to be totally lost in translation. Your global associates may misinterpret what you said, or not understand you at all, but remain too polite to ask what has been said. For instance, one global manager from Malaysia was upset that his boss said "no-brainer" in a recent conversation. He thought his boss was insulting him by calling him stupid.

Can you talk about your work with global virtual teams, to help them build trust and improve productivity?

Research showed that building trust is one of the greatest challenges for global and virtual teams. There are some unfortunate behavioral trends common to all of us on this planet—like lack of communication and inclusion. Intentionally or not, remote team members can feel left "out of the loop," [because they're] unaware of changes or new developments in the project, [or due to] decisions made without getting their input or phone calls and e-mails not responded to in a timely manner.

The list goes on. All of our classic problems—blaming others, not keeping commitments, giving negative feedback in public, and lack of positive recognition—become magnified in importance when we deal with colleagues from other cultures.

How do things look when trust is part of a global business relationship?

There is honest, open, and consistent communication. You provide full disclosure. You are an active listener and provide feedback, especially praise and recognition, and you share information regularly. Consistency is key.

What other things are important to do?

Do what you say you're going to do—deliver what you promise. Don't overpromise—plan effectively. Beyond that, develop trustworthy habits of relaying information. Be clear about responsibilities, authority, delegation. Don't forget that your team members may have other responsibilities and other "virtual" bosses. Budget the time to "do it right the first time." Don't assume that understanding is automatic.

Effective cross-cultural communication isn't easy. But a small investment in clear communication and sensitivity at the beginning of the project can save millions of dollars and hurt feelings at the end of the project!


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