The same language does not mean the same understanding.
It was a big day. We had just signed an agreement with a sales team in Europe that would help us sell our products overseas, but also give us a clear picture of what our clients wanted when they deployed learning solutions throughout their companies. We had decided on a collaborative approach, where our local consulting teams would work with the additional sales group to accelerate sales.
Our first step was to train the sales and support teams, so we scheduled several days of development in a centrally located hotel. And that’s when we made our first blunder. My bosses had insisted that this was to be a “no frills” training, so I proceeded accordingly. While meals, the training environment, and the hotel rooms were all covered by my office, I had not planned any evening activities or social events to accompany the training.
My expectations were met, but the colleagues attending the session quickly informed me that I had missed the mark. Without some social time to get to know one another and build collaborative relationships, they would consider this training a failure. Even worse, if the team did not have time outside the classroom to socialize and collaborate, then they would not be able to work with one another in the future.
I enlisted the help of folks from the local office to quickly plan a social event that was useful in building the key relationships that eventually led to sales. In my ignorance, I had approached the training like I approach business problems: develop a plan and get the work done. What I overlooked is that this new European sales team needed time to build friendships, regardless of the training content.
It’s definitely a lesson that I have continued to reflect on as I have supported new teams and new initiatives. The importance of people connections and work completion is a sliding scale that needs to be adjusted for every culture.
Even in our own back yard
In my current role, I support leaders and customers all over the United States, and some folks outside of the US. Even though there are not any language barriers, we are all working from the same basic perspective, there are some cultural differences in areas around the country. These differences are only magnified when you have language, spatial, and cultural barriers and limited technology-moderated pathways of communication. In a sense, using technology (emails, phone messages, texts, and video calls) distills and concentrates cultural differences.
Business culture specialists have written a number of books on the topic, but I find Zofi’s (2012) framework helpful in A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams. She suggests that miscommunications stem from the combination of virtual and distance-related challenges:
- Lack of informal communication. Distance, even distances within the same building, can strain informal communication. In collocated environments, informal signals can help reinforce expectations, and therefore build trust (or erode it, but that’s a whole different blog post!).
- Differences in perception. Language challenges aside, living for two years in Spain taught me that I was not perceiving or interpreting experiences the same way my Spanish friends did. The same goes for my in-laws in Minnesota (I’m from Georgia) have different perspectives and reactions in social situations. In a leader-to-employee environment where the only communication is email and phone messages, perceptions and expectations can be a source of confusion.
- Differences in status. Hierarchies in organizations come with hidden behavior patterns that vary from culture to culture. Do I make eye contact? Can I send an email to the leader directly? Can I ask for support because I don’t know an answer? As a leader, being aware of these cultural subtexts is even more critical with virtual teams.
- Differences in interpreting context. Different cultures, languages, and contexts all work together to inform the sender and recipients of messages. Termed high-context and low-context cultures, varying emphasis on the literal meanings of messages means that communications you send to your employees can be interpreted differently.
As a distance leader, will my communications be misinterpreted by someone on my team? The short answer: YES. There are steps you can take to be a more effective cross-cultural communicator, though.
- Remember you are working with people. Just because you asked for something doesn’t mean that the other person is going to immediately interpret it the same way as you would.
- Build relationships whenever possible. This means that you are learning from your employees about their cultures and things that are important, and getting to know them well enough to wish them well during locally-celebrated holidays.
- Communicate carefully. Consider whether or not your metaphors, idioms, and colloquialisms will translate to other cultures. For example, using leadership examples from football (American? European?) will fall flat in many other countries. Heck, that even happens in the United States. Don’t assume that everyone can understand the language fluently, and write and develop content accordingly.
- Standardize communications around deadlines and core objectives. In many cultures, telling your superior that you can’t complete a task is career suicide. When communicating about deadlines, expectations of success, and the path to meeting business objectives need to be presented in clear, concise language.
- Ask for reflection. One of the most effective methods for clarifying expectations is to ask the employee, “Just to make sure I am being clear, can you tell me what I just requested?” This method was a life-saver for me when I was the employee, because it gave me a chance to make sure I understood what was being asked of me.
The Results and Cross-Cultural Communications as a Distance Leader
There is no “magic bullet” for getting others to understand your culture and immediately communicate effectively. Instead, balancing personalities, contextual clues, and communications takes a great deal of effort. However, the effort will result in (hopefully) fewer miscommunications and stronger results.
What experiences have you had with multi-cultural communications? Do you have a strategy that works especially well for you? If so, I’d like to hear it!
Comment with your answers below!
For a deeper discussion of cross-cultural communications, check out Chapter 7: Cross-Cultural Communications and Virtual Teams in A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams from Yael Zofi. The following affiliate link will allow you to get a copy from Amazon.com. Please note that I do receive a small commission at no cost to you.
Zofi, Y. (2012). A manager’s guide to virtual teams. New York, NY: Amacom, a division of American Management Association