Global Management: Intercultural Communication Gaps

The following story exemplifies this issue:

A vice president of sales was hired by a global company. In the course of her work she spoke with an American salesperson who was a candidate for a position in her department. In their first interview she asked him about his ambitions and expectations for the coming year. He then replied that he wanted to work on formulating the entire company’s business strategy.

Surprised? So was she!

A number of possible responses ran through her head with one common theme: “Buddy, that’s not your job. That’s why we have a CEO. But if you have any ideas that are relevant to your department, we’d be happy to hear them”. On the one hand, she wanted to make it clear to him that the subject was already handled by the relevant person, but she didn’t want to take the wind out of his sails either. She wanted him to feel significant and keep his desire to contribute.

So how did it go?

M: “We are working on the company strategy as we speak. But when we get to your area, your input may be valuable.”

E: “Maybe? That’s really condescending”.

Her message got completely distorted over one single word. The candidate understood it as if his opinion just may be worth anyone’s attention and found this extremely condescending.

From that moment on, the meeting’s atmosphere changed completely. From a pleasant introduction and expectations settings, it turned into a conflict.

What happened? A communication breakdown.

Studies show that present-day managers face more complex challenges than those faced by managers a decade ago. Classic management is becoming less relevant. We’ve only just begun to tackle the Y generation with its retention challenges, adequate rewarding and abundant employment conditions, and there comes globalization to shake things up even more. In addition to mere geography, with its challenges in employee commitment, employee engagement, controlling remote management tasks and more, language barriers and cultural differences add communication challenges to the pile.

Sure, most of us speak English at some level and can have a proper conversation. Still, communication breakdowns happen all the time.

At times, Israeli directness may be perceived as condescending to an English person, unprofessional to a Ukrainian and simply offensive to an American. It may be even more difficult to formulate subtle messages and to accurately convey them in an emotional conversation. How would you feel if you gave someone a compliment and got a chilly reaction?

This affects our ability to manage, motivate, retain, inspire, and ultimately, be effective. A sincere and fruitful dialogue is the basis for a proper relationship between employees and managers, which ultimately facilitates the progress of your team’s mission.

So what can you do?

Well, first of all, be aware of the problem so you may properly address it and look for ways to resolve it.

Then, help your employees acquire skills and tools to cope with complex situations. Disseminate relevant knowledge in your organization and help your employees develop global communication skills.

The foundation for all of this is communication… communication… communication.

Understanding the principles of communication will help your employees analyze situations and bridge over breakdowns. Mindfulness-oriented communication will allow your employees to be active listeners, to identify their interlocutor’s reactions, to identify communication barriers, reflect them, and make sure everything is understood correctly. Gradually, your employees will develop cultural intelligence (Communication Quotient) with which they may articulate their messages more accurately to people with whom they interact.

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Once the basics are dealt with, you may go on to form a multi-cultural organization, with the skills of:

  1. Language. English of course, but not only English. Do you happen to work frequently with the Japanese branch? Learning some basic words in Japanese can open hearts and create a better atmosphere.
  2. Culture. Understanding the basics of your counterpart’s culture can form a stable framework for your conversations. Learn what’s acceptable and what would be less favorable in a conversation with them.

Let’s go back to our VP Sales…

English may not be her native language but she does have excellent communication skills.

She recognized that the candidate’s reaction was not the reaction she had expected.

She acknowledged that the responsibility was hers – her message did not go through well. She also recognized why – the language barrier.

She immediately reflected this to her interlocutor: “It seems like we have a communication breakdown, I used the wrong word, and I apologize if I offended you in any way. What I meant to say is…”

The barrier was removed, the message was clarified and the conversation turned productive.

As I mentioned earlier, present-day global management comes with plenty of challenges. Remember the challenging trends of the Gig Economy and Borderless World? If not, then you probably missed our conference yesterday. If so, be on the lookout for our new guide on global management to be published immediately after Christmas.

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