In today’s globalized world, it’s easy to assume that everyone speaks a common language. After all, how can we be so different when coworkers on opposite sides of the globe can shop at the Gap and hang out at Starbucks? Yet, managers leading global teams find that there are still a lot of communication minefields stemming from cultural differences.
"We talk about the world being flat and globalization making differences disappear. There’s an assumption that everyone—technologists or finance professionals and so forth—speak a ‘common language’ of the profession, and that cultural differences are just a little local color and noise," explains Karine Schomer, a Bay Area management consultant specializing in bridging cultural gaps.
This attitude can spawn some nasty surprises. Schomer categorizes cultural conflicts into five key areas.
Management hierarchy. In some cultures, there is an expectation that employees defer to managers. This deference is often a key reason why it’s hard to get honest feedback during meetings.
Different ideas about agreements and commitments. Americans tend to prefer clear, detailed agreements and expect commitments to be taken literally and seriously. But other cultures take a more flexible approach to agreements.
Results versus profits. Some cultures value getting things done and aren’t sticklers for rules or protocol. Others emphasize protocol above all else. If managers don’t talk about this, it can be a very problematic area.
Attitudes toward appointments and deadlines. Whereas Americans expect strict adherence to deadlines, others are more flexible.
Being "too direct." Americans are known for being direct and are generally not concerned with "saving face" or avoiding conflict, but these can be big hang-ups in other cultures.
Significantly, merely being aware of these differences is not enough. Managers also need to adapt, something that’s easier said than done.
To break out of this default often means going out of your comfort zone, says Andy Molinsky, a professor at Brandeis International Business School who wrote the book Global Dexterity on adapting behavior across cultures. Companies sometimes shortchange their employees by offering a short two-hour seminar or a paper on cultural differences, said Molinsky, but to tackle this sort of personal development and be truly successful "really takes work."
Molinsky notes a common example. American managers often come to him when they are frustrated that Asian consultants don’t contribute in meetings. The solution is manifold. First, adapt company practices by creating smaller meetings and try calling on meeting participants. Secondly, work on getting employees to feel more comfortable speaking up. This second tactic takes time and requires trust.
Lin Shi, an American lawyer who has been working in Hong Kong for 13 years, says she started to call on people during meetings, but also learned to create trust.
There is a fear that if they tell me in front of other people, it will cause me to lose face," she says. But "now that I’ve established trust and they understand my management style, they know it’s fine to give feedback directly. I won’t scold them the way other managers do."
Consultants and managers alike also emphasize it’s also important to focus on the relationship. Americans have a tendency to jump into business and neglect the personal side of things. That’s to their detriment, especially when working in emerging markets like China or India.
Dan Chou, a former American investment banker in Hong Kong who is now at EdgeMakers, an education startup in San Francisco, recalled a painful learning experience when he went to India on a business trip. He needed a very large presentation uploaded and printed within a few hours to prepare for a meeting. When he asked the India team if they could do it, he was pleasantly surprised when they assured him they could. But when it came time to pick up the presentations, they weren’t done.
Looking back, Chou said, there were multiple problems with his request. Part of it was the India team not understanding the perceived deadlines. There was also an element of not wanting to say no, wishful thinking that they might be able to get it done, and conflict avoidance by saying yes and then hoping for the best. After having a chat with them a few months later, Chou said he learned that a lot of other issues also came out from that seemingly straightforward request. The team was resentful of a lack of respect, being overloaded with work and then being treated as a print shop.
"We needed to work on our end to work on the relationship and show respect for their time, too," he says. Make sure you’re not coming in with "Hi, I’m the imperial American and I’m going to control this relationship. The perceived power can breed resentment. If you don’t show respect, that will play into it," he continues.
These days, multinational companies are hiring local managers who understand the market and culture, but culture clashes are still rife among the lower rung of workers. Workers coming straight from universities haven’t yet been exposed to evolving Western standards of what’s expected by U.S. managers, while U.S. counterparts tasked with leading these global teams are also not necessarily very international.
"Those of us who work on cultural dynamic global business still have plenty of work," says Schomer.
Ellen Sheng is a writer focused on business and finance who has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Barrons, and Forbes, among others. Formerly based in Hong Kong, she’s now back in New York and can be found on Twitter at @ellensheng.