By: Jill Sheldekar, Director of Ethnosynth Consulting, Pune
“I swear, sometimes I feel like every day when my team walks into the office, they are just thinking up new ways to sabotage this project.” The South African professional sitting across from me at the table had a look of exasperation and defeat. He had relocated to Bangalore to reorganize and lead a talent pool of around 300 people for a large US based construction and mining company. After eight months on the job there had been a slew of misunderstandings leading to the lowest level of trust he had ever experienced in a global team. Rampant attrition followed as a result. When he started to narrate some of the incidences that had lead up to this situation, I quickly realized that it was not the result of bad intentions (sabotage) but more the result of conflicting values and behaviour. His natural working style is dominated by values such as directness in communication, extremely rigid time management and a somewhat distant personal demeanour. His team was struggling to understand his expectations. “Yesterday was the last straw,” he said. “I knew that something was up between two of my senior team members. So I called all twelve leads together for a meeting and not a single person would be straight with me. I felt like I was being lied to, right to my face.”
It is experiences like these that make for a fascinating study of how trust and respect is communicated in different cultures. Having lived and worked in India for over thirteen years, I have seen individuals from every corner of the world, struggle to build relationships and trust within diverse teams due to a lack of cultural understanding. That age old adage often referred to as the Golden Rule, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you” simply does not apply in intercultural situations. Furthermore, I often see a behaviour which is intended to give respect or build trust, creating the exact opposite reaction. This is most often the result of conflicting or competing values that differ between the cultural orientations of those involved. In the case of our South African professional, he wanted his leadership team to be direct in sharing opposing viewpoints and to look at problems and solutions as separate from people. As he hadn’t taken the time to building a strong foundation of trust in his team – his Indian leads felt it risky to be so straightforward about problems and issues.
For part one of this three part series on building trust and credibility in the intercultural work environment, I would like to share a few examples, followed by workable solutions, that demonstrate just how complex intercultural relationships can be. First, an example to see how values systems define expectations. Take for instance a few extremely simple behaviours that we rarely think twice about in our day to day work.
EXAMPLE ONE: the habit of using Carbon Copy (cc) to include managers in email communication. In a culture that values individualism, self-reliance and a more autonomous style of working (one where individuals perform their tasks and activities with less involvement or influences from senior members or managers), the use of the cc is less frequent and less important. A manager of such a team feels that as long as things are going well, why would they need to be included in each part of the discussion. Furthermore, if an individual team member is repeatedly cc’ing this manager in day to day communications, they will become concerned as to why this individual does not seem capable of handing their project work independently. Questions start to arise: Why are they wasting my time with minor details and discussions that don’t require my involvement? Are they trying to get visibility for their work by including others in the conversation and if so, why wouldn’t the end results speak for themselves? Am I being cc’d because it is thought that my involvement is required to motivate this group – what is causing this lack of self-motivation? This one simple habit can muddy the waters of collaboration in teams were the intentions behind such an action are interpreted differently.
In a culture (like India) that puts importance on group/relationship orientation, hierarchy and a more interdependent style of working (one where individuals perform tasks and activities with more involvement from senior members), the use of the cc has a much more defined purpose. Keeping a manger informed or looping them in the communication is really more of a default behaviour. A manager’s involvement throughout all the project stages is common, even when things are moving along as planned. Switch the scenarios – now you are an individual who does not cc their manager in day to day communications. Questions start to arise from your manager and other team members who share their expectations: Why don’t they include others in important communications? What if they are absent and we are not able to work on a certain aspect of the project because they were not keeping the team informed? Who do they think they are, that they can just proceed during important stages of the project without even informing others of the progress? Once again we see how a simple behaviour can create problems in a team with conflicting expectations.
SOLUTION: If you are working with a culture like India or Brazil, start utilizing cc more often. Inclusion in these cultures is almost always better than exclusion. Do not take it as a question of your credibility or work ethic, if you are asked to use the cc more frequently. If you are working with a culture like Australia or the United States, avoid using the cc or reply all unless the mail directly addresses the person copied. Often, mails in which a person is cc’d are not even read by that recipient or are given less priority. If the mail requires their attention – forward it directly to them and mention the action you require. If you are ever in doubt – speak to your colleague and clarify their expectations regarding use of the cc.
EXAMPLE TWO: Passive vocabulary. In my day to day interactions with Indian teams, I often hear expressions like “We will probably need to include the procurement team in this discussion” or “We are trying our level best.” In a culture that values control and minimizing or eliminating all forms of ambiguity, the use of words like probably, maybe, might, perhaps, and TRY create a weak impression. These cultures prefer to create a clear distinction – this is what it is, this is what it isn’t. This is what I can do, this is what I cannot do. As Yoda famously says to Luke Skywalker in the movie Star Wars, “Do or do not – This is no try!”
In a culture that has a higher tolerance for uncertainty which is usually coupled with a more flexible attitude towards time, the use of passive language and vocabulary is very normal. It is not intended to create a negative impression or a sign of lack of competency. The underlying belief is there must be room for accommodation. To assume one is complete control of every variable is somewhat foolish. These cultures operate in more unpredictable environments – the result of unreliable infrastructure, use of an undocumented workforce and possibly even a volatile political situation (to name a few). They have built up a kind of tolerance for uncertainty as a result of living in an environment that is more unpredictable. Furthermore, these beliefs are thousands of years old and are deeply rooted in religion and agrarian world views. These words are also used to avoid sounding aggressive or offensive in certain communications and can also be a matter of saving face.
SOLUTION: If you are working with these cultures, like Argentina or India, understand the purpose behind passive vocabulary. If you are unsure about what is actually being said, use open ended questions that articulate a willingness to understand and support the other. “So when you say that it may be possible to …., can you share with me what kind of challenges might come up? And how could I help you in making sure we are ready to overcome those challenges?” Also understand that your language could be interpreted as aggressive or overconfident. Sometimes this leads to ready agreement or over promising and under delivering. The more confident and certain you sound, the less likely someone will communicate uncertainty for fear they will be criticized later.
If you are working with cultures like Germany and Denmark, communicate a level of certainty in your words by deleting passive vocabulary. When there is an absolute need to communicate uncertainty, use expressions like, “In my opinion, the procurement team would benefit from this discussion” or “With this aggressive timeline, we will need to be prepared for potential delays.” Be ready to have a straightforward conversation about what can or cannot be accomplished.
EXAMPLE THREE: Raising the Issue. An issue arises and starts to cause a delay in your timeline. You have your people working extra hours and are able to manage to meet the timeline but quality has suffered as a result. In the next scheduled meeting, no one seems to appreciate the extra effort that was made and instead focuses on the delay.
Cultures with a more indirect style of communication tend to hesitate to communicate bad news first. Before picking up that phone and making a call, often managers will attempt to cope with the delay by stretching the team and/or cutting corners to get the job done. This can create an impression of dishonesty. Questions arise, “Why didn’t he just call me and tell me about the issue? Is he trying to hide some kind of incompetency in his team?” Not raising the issue in a timely manner or being straight forward about limitations (even potential limitations) can break down the trust in your global teams.
Furthermore, cultures that operate in an environment where hierarchy dictates communication styles and protocol, find it very difficult to raise the issue if the person to be informed is seen as a superior or Boss. I often hear examples where members of a global teams have very different perspectives regarding status of level of each member. A Danish professional said to me, “I don’t understand why he doesn’t see me as his equal partner. We are supposed to be collaborating on this project but his behaviour gives me the impression that I am his boss or even a customer. We have the same company name at the end of our email ID!” This was the result of not being able to communicate issues and challenges openly with a solutions-based approach.
SOLUTION: If you are working with direct cultures (Australian or Swiss individuals), be clear right from start regarding issues or challenges. Often the business realities that an Indian manager deals with on a daily basis are very different than someone operating out of Melbourne or Zurich. Be honest about these challenges and make them part of the project planning stage. If something unexpected has occurred, do not wait to raise the issue. Error on the side of caution. If there is even a chance that the timeline or quality will be negatively impacted, communicate it immediately. Do not wait. When you call or email to raise the issue – communicate the problem with potential solutions or options that include an actionable plan.
If you are working with an individual or group that finds it difficult to raise the issue, increase the number of progress checks or status updates that you normally meet for. Understand that asking questions like, “So are we all on track here?” or “Is everything going good/ according to schedule?” will almost always be responded to with a universal “Yes!” Instead, ask questions like, “What has been challenging so far in this process?” or “What can I do to support you in making sure we achieve this deadline?” Use open ended questions that cannot be answered with a simple Yes or No. Some cultures, like India, China and Japan, find it very uncomfortable to say “No” directly to someone making a request fearing it might harm the relationship or make them appear uncooperative.
These three examples address some of the most common causes of mistrust in multicultural teams. Often members of these teams do not only have different values and beliefs, but often these values are in direct conflict with each other. So how do we navigate cross cultural situations where value differences are in such contrast? In the next article, we will use an intercultural lens to explore models which can be applied to assess how trust is established in the work environment. This will result in a deep understanding of how competing values can actually be leveraged to bring out extraordinary results in global teams.