Your team no longer needs to be in the same building in order to collaborate closely on a project; thanks to a plethora of communications tools, colleagues can work together even when they live thousands of miles apart. While that’s great for productivity, it means that cultural differences are going to inevitably come into play—and those fantastic conferencing tools may exacerbate any miscommunication.
Here’s how to mitigate gaffes and communicate more effectively, regardless of the differing cultural norms that define far-flung workers.
According to Andy Molinsky, professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at Brandeis University and author of Global Dexterity, you should do your homework before engaging with new colleagues from a new culture. Read up on basic cultural differences, of which there may be many. “There’s a typical default way that we all act in our respective cultures,” he said. “It’s the way that we give feedback, greet people, praise or don’t praise, so all sorts of things would be different across cultures.”
If you don’t make an effort to understand, you may fall into the trap of misattributing typical behavior as negative or insulting. It’s important for anyone working across cultures to be able to adjust their behavior accordingly, Molinsky added. That might mean stepping outside your comfort zone, and embracing new sets of cultural rules.
For example, Westerners are taught to look people in the eye and promote their achievements; that’s in contrast to many Eastern cultures that view direct eye contact as aggressive and self-promotion as boastful. As a result, teams of Western employees may view Eastern colleagues as shy or disengaged. “You might think that someone is a jerk or not inspired or not a team player,” Molinsky added, “when in fact the opposite is true.”
In addition to doing your homework, make sure to take it slow when onboarding with new colleagues from halfway around the world. “Don’t allow a half-hour for it, don’t allow an hour for it,” said Matthew MacLachlan, head of intercultural and communication skills training at Communicaid, an international cultural consultancy. “Take your time. If they like you, they’ll want to find out as much about you as possible and that’s part of their vetting process.”
In countries such as the United States, there’s a transactional, “get it done” approach to issues that can prove a detriment when working with people from relationship-based cultures, which dominate in many parts of the world. “The American dream is all about improving your status and the way you live. That’s your focus,” MacLachlan said. “In other places you’re much more defined by your relationships to other people. That’s a fundamental change in the way of thinking.”
With that in mind, he added, when teams begin to coordinate, it’s often helpful if Westerners take a little time to open up and discuss things. If you’re in this situation, and worked in the past with companies and people from the same country as those on your current team, that previous experience represents an excellent conversation-starter with your new colleagues.
A group may run into trouble by overstating the importance of a project (“It’s the biggest and most complicated”) while declaring their technical prowess (“We’re going to conquer and demolish it”); Americans in particular are prone to this kind of exaggeration, which can offend teams from countries that view hyperbole as disrespectful or even boorish.
Virtual meetings, particularly with Eastern colleagues, offer another a managerial challenge. In many Asian countries, management is strictly hierarchical. In China, colleagues may expect that the most senior manager will relay decisions to the team. That’s in contrast to team members in the United States, who are often expected to provide suggestions and give feedback to help make decisions.
According to MacLachlan, it’s imperative that a team based in the United States knows who’s in the room during any meeting with Asian colleagues; if a senior manager isn’t present on their side, decisions won’t be made. “A solution to this,” he suggested, “is to be much more explicit about your agenda for the meeting and through that agenda, set out objectives and outcomes that you hope for.” In meetings with Chinese counterparts, adding a description to a written agenda about pausing for discussion and requesting feedback will encourage more engagement.
Being flexible with regard to culture is as much an art as a science. “Oftentimes when we’re thinking about cultural adaptation, we focus on differences,” Molinsky said. “While it’s still very important, if you want to build relationships and interpersonal connections to create a swift sense of trust, which is fundamental in a team, you want to focus more on similarities instead of differences.”
The most obvious commonalities are skill sets and industry knowledge, both of which allow astute employees to forge connections, make conversation, and overcome misunderstandings. An individual’s personality is a major factor in mutual understanding, as well.
Nor do stereotypes always apply; your colleagues may hail from a particular culture, but their individual background defies conventions. In other words, pay attention to the individual, who may come from a very specific set of circumstances that governs their behavior. “It could be a function of regional culture or the company culture or a function of the generation of the person,” Molinsky said. “A Millennial could be from Poland but may have gone to college in the U.K. They could be from China but have gone to Wharton. Factors go way beyond just culture.”