Cross Cultural Communication

Volume 10 • Issue 1

Welcome to our improved e-Newsletter on cross cultural communication and cross cultural management!

As you may recall, the previous newsletter highlighted the five trends that appeared in AIM’s Virtual Teams (VTs) Report. This newsletter pulls data from one of these trends ‐ which I call Lost in Translation (see below). I think you will agree that these findings are more relevant today than ever before.

In This Issue

Lost in Translation

Virtual Teams Translate English to English – this trend can be summarized here:

The mix of cultures in international collaboration can cause various obstacles for VT members if they lack the tools to manage cross cultural communication (see Global Obstacles Figure below). The most common difficulty pertains to differences in the understanding of the English language (47%). This includes different levels of competency as well as different interpretations. For example, words such as “yes” or “done” often have different meanings, depending on the culture. Surprisingly, we found that content is more important than verbal styles, as only 10% of members have concerns with understanding accents.

cross cultural communication

Another big challenge with cross cultural communication stems from cultural differences (45%), which included diversity of conversation and relationship building styles. Some teammates may seek to build relationships early on, such as certain Asian countries (Korea for one), while others are more task- focused, including countries like the U.S. Understanding and being aware of cultural differences can alleviate conflict and improve relationships.

An additional cross cultural business communication challenge facing virtual members is being mindful of teammates’ time zones (40%). Showing respect when scheduling meetings is important, but can be difficult when colleagues’ business hours do not overlap. In these situations it is likely that team members will be on call late at night or early in the morning. Many teams alternate meeting times in order to distribute the strain of working outside regular office hours.

Once team members began learning about their colleagues’ cultures and became comfortable communicating across time zones, they reported improved performance in cross cultural communication.

Four Strategies to Get UN-Lost in Translation

During my consulting engagements with global firms throughout the years, I smile when I come across English being translated to English. Being foreign-born, I am always sensitive to how I speak, especially when interacting with people from other cultures. One key question I asked when preparing to write this book was: how do you get team members from different cultures un-lost in translation, that is how do you get them to understand each other, despite their cross cultural communication differences? Below are suggestions for effective cross cultural management.

1. Be Curious
Keep an open mind, sharpen your ‘people antenna’ and ask questions. Noteworthy quote from a senior HR Leader for a Food and Beverage Conglomerate, let’s call her Ingrid: “Know that your culture is not the only one in the world. Be open-minded and willing to learn about the many cultures out there. Try to really understand what someone else’s language means, and trust your colleagues enough to ask questions.”

Ingrid described a lost in translation situation with her colleagues in London. During a conference call to discuss downsizing employees she noticed a silence on the phone. “I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ and got no response. They were so quiet, and when I asked again, one of them said, ‘terminated in the UK means dead.’ They used the term leaver instead.” She became curious about how the same words can have such different meanings and decided to create a global glossary. Speaking about her learning, Ingrid said, “It’s a different way of talking. So it’s a matter of feeling comfortable and asking questions from the point of curiosity.”

In my practice, I often recommend that a cross cultural virtual team create their own glossary early on in the team’s formation so people are clear on expressions and the meaning of English when translated to English for improved cross cultural communication.

2. Adapt to Cross Cultural Differences by Putting it in Writing
Encourage your team to understand and adapt to each other’s personal work styles and preferences. To facilitate effective cross cultural communication, provide multiple communication channels, clear directions for each phase of a project and check in frequently. One manager noted, ‘put it in writing’ after multiple situations with missed deadlines due to misunderstandings around key deliverables. “I had a team of analysts who fed data to the sales departments for different financial products. I thought I gave clear instructions, but after the third time we missed the mark I had to rethink how I did things before I could put the blame on my analysts who were mostly located overseas.”

Leading virtual teams requires creating new ways to work together, and it starts with ensuring that all team members are aware of cultural differences and prepared to try to understand and adapt. You must adapt the way you manage as well as the way you lead. Divide the work up to create local ownership and cross cultural collaboration. Also paramount to improving cross cultural communication is providing multiple communication channels, conducting frequent progress checks and translating complex directions. One Financial Services manager I interviewed learned to ‘put it in writing!’ For many cultures it is better to follow-up with the written word to confirm the verbal. Many managers tell me that they follow-up their virtual meetings with written summaries to make sure that there is clarity. Some cultures (many Asian cultures) are more structured and respond to ‘command and control – ‘tell me how to do it and I will wait for your direction’ approach while other cultures (more in the US) are more entrepreneurial and might ‘go ahead and do it and get sloppy’ as one virtual manager at a technology company pointed out. He follows up all meetings with copious notes and written summaries afterwards so his virtual members (particularly the ones in China) can read and understand what he expects at their own leisure/on their own time.

3. Create Cross Cultural Collaboration
Creating commonalities is challenging when working across cultures and time zones. How to do that? One way is to subdivide an overriding goal into smaller goals that can be worked on by some members across the team. Provide clear and specific direction, with support and encouragement. Here is an example: “We have colleagues all over Europe. Before new members join us we send basic information about their culture to the rest of the team, and we send them a PowerPoint presentation with details about every culture represented on our team. We also ask them to email everyone on the team two things: (1) what one thing – personal or professional – do they want colleagues to know about them, and (2) what their favorite holiday is, and why. We do this so that people can begin to build connections and we encourage them to dialogue among themselves. In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we give clear and univocal instructions and we repeat them via mail, phone or internal IMs.”

When working across cultures and time zones, it is paramount to (despite the differences, time zones and nationalities) it is important to create commonalities across your team. How should you do that? One way is to create shared goals across your team, provide clear and specific direction and provide support and encouragement. “In order to avoid any misunderstanding, we give clear and univocal instructions. If something is not clear, we repeat the instructions (via mail, phone or internal instant messaging). And before integrating multi-cultural team members, we take care of providing basic information about the other cultures” – Partner, Accounting Firm, Belgium

Besides putting communication routines in place and constantly checking on your virtual team, what else can you do to create cross cultural commonalities? As one virtual manager from a Litigation Consulting Firm told me, “It is just a matter of finding that connection with people; finding the common piece that connects us as human beings, and it always starts with respecting people and their experiences and discovering new ways for linking people.” Yes virtual manager, your greatest contribution to your team is to enable connection across time and space and maintain the human interaction vibrant across your team.

4. Become a True Manager of Cultures
Whether local or global, look at the landscape beyond the horizon, recognizing that events at one location impact another. I call this type of visionary leadership VISTA-leadership. It requires advanced understanding, visioning, and a hyper-openness to how people interact in different cultures. As so beautifully put by a client who led a global team at a Healthcare Solutions Company, “When it comes to becoming a manager of cultures, you need to know what don’t know. There are so many unknowns and you have to manage and look for them; people don’t speak exactly what they mean. They maintain distance, and when you are a global manager who is not from their side [location] you need to understand them.”

I hope these four strategies for getting UN-lost in Translation will help you translate English to English and improve cross cultural communication across your own teams.

Virtual Team Trends – Report and Podcast

As many of you know, in preparation for my latest book, A Manager’s Guide to Virtual Teams, I analyzed data from interviews I conducted with 150+ virtual team members, managers and CEOs from diverse industries over a period of 10 months. Countries and cultures from five continents were represented – Asia, North America, South America, Africa and Europe. The research is particularly interesting because it covers a diverse range of industries across the globe, from Health Care to Software, from Financial Services to Retail, from Manufacturing to Aviation.

Prior to the book launch, the AIM team created a short report that summarizes trends uncovered in these interviews. Interview questions identified four key areas common to VTs: communication, trust, conflict and deliverables. While interviews were conducted to determine commonalities around these four areas (which the upcoming book explores in depth), we also found several notable trends.

I invite you to read through the Virtual Teams Trends Report and listen to the podcast by clicking below.

cross cultural communication

Virtual Teams Trends Report 

Virtual Teams Trends Podcast

About AIM Strategies

AIM Strategies® Applied Innovative Management® is a results-driven Human Capital Consulting firm specializing in the areas of: Global Leadership Development, Co-located and Virtual Team Facilitation, Cross Cultural Communications, and Change Integration Services. To request information about AIM’s experiential learning methods (5D’s™ Consulting/Proprietary Training Methodology and ACT™ Coaching Process), please email info@aim-strategies.com. In upcoming issues of this newsletter, we’ll update you on tips and techniques related to raising your innovative management IQ. We are confident that the solutions we develop fit your needs and culture. Please forward this newsletter to your colleagues and visit www.aim-strategies.com to learn more about how our services unlock the people potential of your organization!

Posted in E-News, Intercultural Business Communication
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