The differences between direct and indirect communication can cause serious damage to relationships when team projects run into problems. A Danish manager discovered several flaws in her company’s customer-data system that could significantly disrupt promotional activities. She pointed these out in an email to her German boss and Indian team members. Her boss appreciated the direct warnings; her Indian colleagues were embarrassed because she had not followed their normal protocols for discussing problems. Their reaction was to restrict access to the people and information she needed to monitor progress. They probably would have responded better if she had pointed out the problems indirectly – for example by asking them what would happen if a certain part of the system was not functioning properly, even though she knew full well that it was malfunctioning and also what the implications were.
So, if you are from a direct culture communicating with an indirect partner, remember to soften your style of language. Nurture the relationship, keep your language friendly, and avoid making any conflict personal. If you are from an implicit culture, don’t be frustrated because they want to go through the issue step by step, even if to you it seems a waste of time, or they want a clear agenda for the session with frequent summaries. Be positive, and remember to put as much effort into spending time to build the relationship as in the issues themselves.
Another area of conflict in virtual team-working is due to status and hierarchy. Some teams are used to a rather flat organisational structure. But team members from some cultures, in which people are treated differently according to their status in an organisation, are uncomfortable in flat teams. If they defer to higher-status team members, their behaviour will be seen as appropriate when most of the team comes from a hierarchical culture; but they may damage their credibility if most of the team comes from an egalitarian society. As a result of differing cultural norms, team members believe they’ve been treated disrespectfully and projects can fail. In a Taiwanese-Swedish team, the Swedish members were having difficulty getting information from their Taiwanese counterparts, so they complained directly to higher-level Taiwanese management. The higher-level managers were offended because hierarchy is strictly adhered to in Taiwanese organisations and culture. It should have been their own lower-level people, not the Swedish team members, who came to them with a problem. And the Taiwanese team members were humiliated that their bosses had been involved before they themselves could brief them.
Likewise, cultures differ enormously when it comes to decision-making – particularly how quickly decisions should be made and how much analysis is required beforehand. Not surprisingly, US managers like to make decisions very quickly and with relatively little analysis by comparison with managers from other countries.
A Swiss company who was negotiating to buy Brazilian products commented “at our first meeting, we agreed on three key points, but at the second meeting, the Brazilian side wanted to go back and re-discuss points one and two again!” This pattern happened multiple times. Eventually, the Swiss realised that couldn’t impose their view of completing tasks before moving on to the next, handling one thing at a time. The Brazilians also understood they couldn’t simply ignore the desire of their Swiss counterparts to make decisions quickly. The best solution was to make minor concessions on the process. For example, the Swiss managers learned to change tasks as opportunities arose and value the adaptability and flexibility of their Brazilian friends. Likewise, the Brazilians learned to be more focused on deadlines and value promptness and good organisation over flexibility.
However, when working with a culture that is different to your own – adapting your own style to be more like them, does carry a risk. It's not easy trying to find a happy medium, but taking small steps can help resolve differences before the arise. Our top tips include: prepare in advance for meetings with cultures who are uneasy at sharing their opinions openly; listen nonjudgmentally, summarise and check your understanding frequently; identify areas of agreement and disagreement; explore alternatives and “must haves” for each side; and demonstrate your empathy by asking about concerns as projects progress.
Although the language of global business is generally English, misunderstandings occur because of non-native speakers’ accents or lack of fluency. These also influence our perceptions of status or competence. Non-fluent team members may well be the most expert on the team, but their difficulty communicating knowledge makes it hard for the team to recognise and use their expertise. Non-native speakers then become more anxious to contribute and concerned about their performance and future management prospects.
We recommend that you consider carefully how you communicate with non-native speakers. Limit your own vocabulary. Any idea can be expressed with a toolkit of 1000 words, plus technical or specialist jargon. Avoid idioms, signpost changes in direction and use open questions. Speak clearly and more slowly.