Do maps influence our language and how we judge our teammates?

Take a good look at the world map below? Does it make you feel uncomfortable? Does it make you lose perspective?  Generally people feel distressed when they see this projection of the world map for the first time. Does Europe seem tiny and insignificant through this view?

Map 1: Hobo-Dyer Equal Area Projection, South Up

What about this one? What is the first thought that comes to your mind when you look at Map 2?

Map 2: Hobo Dyer Equal Area Projection, North Up

My first thought was, “Wow Africa is huge!”

Being brought up in the southern hemisphere, I have often felt that I am always most at ease when meeting others from the south. I have often queried that.  What is it about them that makes me feel so comfortable? We might come from different parts of the world entirely, Chile, South Africa, Australia and yet there is something that connects us. What could it be? Could it be related to how we were brought up viewing the world and therefore our position in this world?

Many of us were brought up with a skewed perspective of the world. I grew up in Melbourne, Australia. At school we used the traditional, “Mercator” map below. As you can see, Melbourne is at the very bottom… you need to look hard to find it.

Map 3: Mercator projection

You’ll likely recognise the projection of  map 3 above, it’s the projection used by Google and other internet map providers[1]. It was created by the navigator Gerardus Mercator in 1569 as a guide to sailors to navigate the globe. Apparently it is still extremely useful for navigation purposes. However the world is a globe and it is very hard to project a globe onto a flat piece of paper, without distorting it. On the Mercator projection, you can see that Greenland looks bigger than Australia and Africa. In fact Australia is about three times the area of Greenland and Africa about 14 times the size of Greenland.

So let’s go back to map 1.

Map 1: Hobo Dyer Equal Projection, South Up

Ah… I love this map. Look at that, Melbourne uppermost centre… now I feel on top of the world:) There seems to be so much more water with this perspective. Of course this map is also not completely accurate as no flat surface can accurately project a globe, but this map does show the correct size of the countries.

Different perspectives offer different insights. How would our image of ourselves change if we were brought up looking at maps with our country always in the centre?

And yes, south can be up…  This “north is always up” perspective of the world does not only influence our image of ourselves (and others) but it also influences our language.  “I’m heading down south, I’m heading up north”. What about the negative connotations related to the south, such as, “My computer is only one month old, and it’s already gone south.” Why is south negative? Is it because we always look at maps that depict south to be at the bottom, and the bottom of the earth is not a pleasant place to be? In the Catholic Middle Ages of course the bottom of the earth referred to hell and evil.

So what do maps have to do with High-Performing Culturally Diverse Teams? We should never underestimate how important it is when working with people of other backgrounds to take the time to look at every situation through their perspective. I realise that statement can seem banal, but the way each one of us views the world, influences the way we see ourselves and the way we perceive (and probably judge) others in relation to that. This in turn impacts the way we behave and communicate with them. Do we speak in a patronising way when we speak to a person who comes from a country that on our map view seems insignificant? Are we more confident when communicating with people whom we perceive as being similar to us according to our map view?  Is there a natural connection or bond that allows us to be ourselves and show more confidence when interacting with these people? Where we position ourselves is central to how we view others and therefore how we behave, communicate and are accepted, or not, by others.

How do you feel your view of the world has influenced your communication and image of yourself?

[1] “The Mercator Projection was originally designed for nautical navigation by keeping lines of latitude perpendicular to lines of longitude. Land areas are distorted and the distortion increases nearer the poles, making countries in very low or very high latitudes look bigger than they really are.” Source: www.philmikejones.me & “Seeing Through Maps”, Wood, Kaiser and Abrahams, 2006 by ODT.

Team Culture – Europe is getting back into motion – Now is the time to realign and create the Culture the team can thrive in.

Europe is slowly opening up after the COVID-19 lockdown. After weeks of isolation people are finally allowed to go out for a walk, factories are re-starting their production machines and office employees will soon be starting back.  

Each team member has had their own difficult situations to overcome; some have had to share home office with kids who have been doing home-schooling, others who usually love being active are feeling claustrophobic at not being able to exert themselves in the gym or on a long outdoor bike ride. Maybe over the last few weeks work has not always been foremost on their minds.  Now is the ideal time to “re-align” and create or revise your team culture. Many of us have been obliged recently to contemplate what matters to us most. What are our values, whether at home or at work.

Culture is often overlooked by leaders because it can seem too abstract. Actually, it’s quite concrete once we sit down and discuss it with our team. A strong team culture creates cohesion, pride, team spirit, accountability, open communication, inclusion, productivity and therefore a high-performing team. Creating a team culture is the way to bring that cohesion and team spirit back to the forefront if it is has slipped a bit during lockdown.

What are we referring to when we say culture? Culture is a set of norms accepted and encouraged by the group; acceptable ways of behaving, communicating and getting things done, for example:

  1. What is the acceptable way that our group gives feedback to one another or?
  2. How do we move forward with a risky decision?  Do we plan and wait until we are more “certain” or jump and “fail fast”.
  3. How do we disagree? Is it acceptable to disagree openly with another teammate in a group meeting and encourage constructive conflict or is that rather frowned upon?
  4. What is a productive way for us as a team to make decisions?
  5. How do we problem-solve when we have little time on our hands, etc.

There are different methods of creating your team culture. What is essential is that it be created by the team, not a few individuals or leaders. Below is a 4-step activity you can start with, there are obviously other methods. This exercise can be done face-to-face or virtually. If you plan to do it virtually then consider planning 4 short sessions rather than one long session. If you do the below 4-step activity you need to invest time in the discussion part of the activity (step 2). Give every team member the opportunity to express themselves and allow for possible introverts to have their say about how they also envision the team functioning well. The important message here is that it is the team that creates the culture it believes in. You’ll need to discuss common values and therefore have every member speak up. This could be difficult on a virtual culturally diverse team, so prepare well for that moderation hurdle.

Step 1: Plot a Culture Map

Each team member plots themselves on a Culture Map along 4 scales related to behaviour or communication. Each scale shows  each team member’s preference (see sample culture map below). The four scales can be varied, but those that create strong discussions often are:

  1. How you build trust and manage conflict
  2. Problem Solving techniques
  3. Decision making – do you feel the need to be involved or not
  4. How you deal with uncertainty / risk taking,

Once everyone is plotted it is more obvious to see similarities and differences between team members. Remember, differences can be complementary and can enhance creativity and problem solving solutions, therefore don’t play them down.

Team Culture Map

Step two: This is the most essential part of the exercise. Do not skip it. This is the time for discussion. Let’s zoom in on scale 1 above and use it as an example:

Team Communication Preferences

Ask each person to discuss their preferences according to what they plotted. In the above example, which looks at communication and how we give feedback or disagree, Elena might come across to Emmanuel as being domineering or aggressive. She may not realise it. You could probably discuss here what the benefits are of having somebody always play devil’s advocate and on the other hand discuss how important it might be with clients to have colleagues who steer away from conflict, such as Emmanuel. Consider how team behaviour might differ according to what Elena’s role is. If she is the leader of the team it might come across differently compared to if she is not. You might discuss what conflict actually means to the individuals. For some it could mean saying, “I think your plan is really inefficient and our client will hate it.” This could come across as quite aggressive for some Asian cultures. For others, conflict could be as simple as a gentle disagreement. Another topic to discuss here is when (if ever) do the individuals feel comfortable disagreeing; do they need a relationship of trust before being able to disagree?

This discussion is the heart of the workshop. Each person openly speaks about what their preference is.   Each scale needs to be discussed and once you complete the discussion of each scale move to step 3. If you do this as a virtual workshop you may prefer to do one complete scale from step 1 to step 4 during each virtual session.

Step three: Discuss a strategy to be more efficient (if necessary) thereby creating your ideal team culture.  For the above scale, your discussion could start with:

  1. How can we come up with good ideas and exchanges in the future and get everyone involved, including those who don’t like conflict?
  2. How do we create more open/transparent discussions within the team?
  3. How can we make sure everyone on the team is listened to, both the risk-takers and the risk-averse even though some of them have stated they don’t like to enter conflict?
  4. How can this knowledge help us run more productive meetings?

Step four: Once the points in step 3 are agreed to by all members, write your team charter. These are the “behaviour and norms” you will follow as a team according to what was discussed in step 3. It is important to write them somewhere where the whole team has access to them so you can occasionally go back to them. They can be used for example before starting a meeting or after a few months when some points seem to have been forgotten.

The Team Charter should be “Our Culture”: Not yours, not mine, but ours. It is a culture in which each team member thinks: “I feel comfortable working here because my values are appreciated. I feel I can be myself and therefore it brings out the best of me.”

High Performing Global Teams – Three Steps to Building Trust Remotely

If trust is the glue that connects and creates a High Performing Team, and if trust is created through spontaneous “coffee-corner chit-chat” or sharing a beer or coke after work, it’s no wonder we often struggle to feel connected to our team members when working remotely.

A recent study found that although remote teams have caught up with centrally located teams in terms of brainstorming, setting goals and project management, they are still lagging when it comes to feeling connected.

Ideally, our virtual communication techniques should replicate what we do (often without much effort) in a same-office team. The three small gestures below can help you create that bond which builds trust, which in turn builds team spirit and accountability and which finally helps increases team performance.

1.    Replicate the office coffee-corner virtually

Invite a colleague for a morning coffee just to say, “Hi”. The invitation is literally for 5 minutes. It doesn’t involve talking about work, it is purely to say, “How are things?” Don’t forget to switch on the camera.

This might seem unnatural initially, but just think about what happens naturally at the coffee corner in the office. While preparing your preferred drink you see colleagues from other departments and business units and you have that quick, 3-minute chat about the weekend, about your kids, about movies or perhaps about a new running route you’ve just discovered.

What is so important about these quick exchanges? These short dialogues show who you are as a person other than just as a business colleague and they create a bond. By opening up like this, we show, and see in return, a human side to the person that we find difficult to imagine through email exchanges. We discover what we have in common and these commonalities are what help us build a relationship, build trust and therefore accountability. 

2. Virtual after-work drinks

Before Coronavirus this seemed like a far-fetched thought for many. Since we have been locked up for weeks and craving conversation, it seems more natural and it’s been great to see how many people have picked up on it. Invite your colleagues for a drink after work. You grab a beer, they grab a coke, an ice -tea, a prosecco, maybe a cappuccino depending on what time zone you are all in. Whatever the refreshment, it’s time for relaxing and talking about whatever comes to your mind and exchanging on a more personal note. This is not the 3-minute chat from above. Allow some time to give people the opportunity to open up. If you’re not a natural talker, or you have some introverts on the team who might struggle to open up, think of easy subjects to talk about that are not too personal such as travel ideas, food, national celebrations and traditions in your colleagues’ countries that you might be curious about.

3. Include ice-breakers into your weekly virtual ops meetings

When we go to a same office face-to-face meeting, usually one or two people arrive a few minutes earlier than the crowd and a short discussion starts. As each person slips into the meeting room the discussion opens up with more people adding what they have to say and each new added sentence gives us insight into the person sitting in front of us. Often, these spontaneous discussions lead to creative ideas. This is a an element that is often missing in team conference calls. When we join conference calls where one person is sitting in Kuala Lumpur, one in Sydney and a third and fourth in Zurich and Stockholm, we don’t take the time to break the ice this way. We log-into the meeting one minute before it starts, the host welcomes everyone and the meeting begins.

If you’re running a virtual team meeting find some 3-4 minute icebreakers you can use. Make them short and fun. They can be as personal or impersonal as you feel is appropriate for the team. For example, ask each team member to send a photo of themselves when they were 5 years old. The others have to guess who it is. Or everyone uploads their favourite film /book/football player/pair of shoes and you need to guess which object belongs to which team member.

Always remember to switch on your camera in these sessions and find a way to convince the others to do so too. It is extraordinary how a smile can help interpret emotions that are usually very dfficult to read over the phone or through email. The visual aid helps us read between the lines when communicating with people who don’t normally say exactly what they think.

These easy to apply communication techniques help us create a connection with our colleagues, which allows us to bond and thereby create trust. Without trust and without accountability team spirit crumbles and when it does, your goals slowly become unattainable.  

Inclusion: It can be as simple as Listening

A few years ago, the company I was working for sent me off to Brazil to lead a small team of 4 Brazilian women, all with different work and life experiences. The most experienced was the manager who was about 35 and the least experienced was an assistant who was about 24 years old.

After a few months with the team, I thought it was time to analyse how things were moving forward. Had I built trust with my team? Had they built trust with one another? Was our communication clear? I asked myself all these questions, and more,  and I was fairly content with my answers and gave myself a pat on the back. Boy was I wrong! About a week later, one of my team members, (let’s call her Lia), basically told me how incompetent I was at dealing with Brazilians.  Let me tell you what happened.

 Lia and I headed to Sao Paolo for an important meeting. I had 90 minutes to convince a university professor to allow about 100 of his students to do a paid internship with our company.   Seems simple right? Well, I thought it was going to be simple. I’d had several similar meetings before, in different countries, and until then I had been successful with my request. I knew the subject matter of the meeting very well, and I thought I knew what the outcome was going to be.  Consequently, I entered the meeting on “Autopilot”. Mistake #1. I didn’t pick up on little signals and body language that the professor was sharing throughout the discussion to show his disinterest. Therefore, I wasn’t flexible enough to change my mode of communication or my persuasion techniques.

At the end of the 90 minutes, Lia and I walked out of the meeting, our heads down, unsuccessful. The professor was not going to allow his students to join our project. Lia and I stepped into the taxi that was taking us back to the airport. I was speechless and in shock at how badly the meeting had just gone. After a few minutes, I turned to Lia and asked, “What just happened in there?” She looked at me and suddenly burst into tears. She was crying and yelling through her sobs, “Tania, you haven’t been listening to me!!!” I’ve been telling you for months that you cannot do things here your way, you have to do it the Brazilian way!” “What? What do you mean you’ve been telling me for months?” “Well, to start with, about one month ago in our team meeting, I said A, B and C. Three weeks ago, I said, X,Y and Z and last week I repeated A, B and C, but you just ignore what I say!”

Ooooooh…What a disaster. Lia had been giving me feedback about how to be more efficient with my Brazilian counterparts, but I hadn’t “heard” her feedback.  I hadn’t heard it because I didn’t know how to adapt my listening techniques to her communication methods. For Lia, hierarchy was important and I was her Manager. Therefore, she found it difficult to speak to me directly, she didn’t want to seem disrespectful,  which means her feedback was very indirect, so indirect that I didn’t understand it. It just went straight over my head.

 In Lia’s eyes, the fact that I didn’t modify my communication according to her suggestions, meant that I was not interested in her opinion or in her ideas, therefore she believed I didn’t trust her. This was all mistaken of course, but that was her perspective.  What’s more, I realised that I was probably about to lose the respect and trust from the rest of my team unless I made some changes quickly.

 I hadn’t understood Lia because I had only been listening with my ears and because I was convinced that my method of getting things done was the right one.  Lia was putting far more than just words into the message she was delivering. In fact, the words she used were of little significance. Most of the significance came from her body language and the subtle hints she was giving me while smiling.  Did I think that because she smiled while giving me the hints that they were not so important or not serious? For me a smile typically means agreement. Did I not go out to lunch with her often enough and share in personal chatter enough? Maybe that would have created a level of trust with her that could have helped her open up to me differently, or in a way that I would have understood. If I had done more personal sharing, maybe I would have learnt more about her communication techniques and learnt what was feedback and what wasn’t.

 When we work in culturally diverse teams, each one of us has a very different mindset and a different way of  seeing the world and therefore of behaving and communicating. What is respectful behaviour in one culture can seem very disrespectful in another. If we want to be inclusive and bring out the best of each one of our colleagues, irrespective of their background, we need to learn what the perspective of each one of our teammates is.  We cannot assume that just because Corporate Culture says, “This is the way we do things around here,” that each individual is going to be comfortable following that path. Inclusion means taking the time, making time, to get to know who you’re working with even though you think that lunch time chit chat or coffee machine chit chat takes you away from reaching your deadlines.

Take a look at the Chinese character below, Ting, (which means to listen). We can learn a lot about listening from our Chinese colleagues. “Ting”, is made up of 4 smaller characters, each one a component of what we should use to listen; our ears, our eyes, undivided attention and an open heart.

Feedback within Global Teams

 

 

How often are you asked by your colleagues, “Could you take a look at my presentation and tell me what you think?” This seems like a harmless task. So you take a look and say, “It looks good, maybe just change the blue border around the graph to green.”

Hmmm. What do you think has just been understood by Lila, the colleague who asked for your opinion?

a) She thinks she´s done a great job and will just change the blue border to green, or

b) She thinks you hate the whole presentation and she will be up all night to rewrite it all.

Feedback is hard enough when we are dealing with people who have a similar mindset to ours. We´re usually a little uncomfortable telling somebody that the work they have done is not quite what was expected. When we give feedback to people who were brought up in a similar environment to ours, we are usually aware of the best way to do it. We pick up on small patterns of behaviour that are are part of the culture we grow up in. As we grow up, we see, listen and copy how people act and react to what we say and how we say it; be it at school from friends and teachers and then when we join the work-force our colleagues and managers use patterns that we recognise and we copy knowing it works.

However, it is all too easy to make unknown errors working in culturally diverse teams and assuming that just because we work for the same company and are aware of the corporate culture, that we are comfortable using the same communication techniques.

If you´ve been brought up in north-western Europe where one of the most important values is often honesty and equality, then feedback can be to the point and direct. You know that the person you´re talking to will likely appreciate your honesty and not take any offence in what you say. Therefore, with our above sample, Lila will literally only go and change the blue line to a green line and then feel her presentation is complete.

However, if Lila happened to grow up in, let´s say, Far East Asia or Latin America, where generally society values relationship-building and saving Face more that telling the “absolute truth”, then she might have understood that her presentation was indeed not good at all and needed to be redone, completely. In these societies generally feedback is given in a far more indirect manner, using techniques such as not mentioning what was not done well. So the fact that the person above only mentioned the colour of the line around the graph and nothing else, could be interpreted to mean that everything that was not mentioned was not to be re-worked.

Let´s look at the above example again and see how the feedback can be treated if Lila really is from a culture where trust is created through relationship-building and face-saving is important. Ideally you create an environment where a discussion can take place rather than just give your opinion:

  1. Firstly, always give feedback one-on-one, never in public

2. Rather than give your opinion, ask the other person what they think about the work they have just done; “So Lila, how do you feel the presentation looks?

3. If Lila says she likes it, (and yet you think there are still some adjustments to be made) then perhaps ask, “If you had to give it a score from 1-10, what score would you give it?” Lila replies, “I´d give it an 8”. “So,” you reply, “how can we bring it from 8 to 9?” and that is where the feedback discussion begins.

Being culturally savvy means learning to read communication patterns that are different to the ones you were brought up with and knowing when to change your communication techniques (verbal and non-verbal) according to the cultural background of the team member you are facing. If you work in a multicultural team, that could mean either changing your communication with every person on the team or deciding with the team openly and up front which communication techniques will be used to express such thoughts. That would be creating the team culture a method of behaviour and communication that everyone on the team is happy with.

3 actions that create an inclusive culture

A few weeks ago I was staying in a hotel in central Amsterdam. I had just gone out for breakfast and strolled back into the hotel to go up to my room. I stepped into the elevator and a young woman followed me in. The trip up to my 5th floor room took around 10 seconds. Within 5 seconds, I had summed her up. I started to panic thinking, oh no, she’s a drug addict, she’s going to steal my purse, I won’t make it to my business appointment this afternoon and I won’t be able to fly home tomorrow without my passport !!!!

All of that in 5 seconds. Of course she did nothing of the sort. She was a 26-year-old (I think) Italian tourist who had just been out partying all night and forgot to take her key-card out with her. So why did I, in less than 10 seconds, judge her so harshly?

That was my unconscious bias talking. I was piecing together information that was missing. And I pieced it together wrongly. I had 5 pieces of information; 1. She had droopy looking eyes at 7.30am. 2. She was very skinny. 3. She had a bad complexion 4. She hadn’t pressed a floor button when she entered the elevator and 5. she said to me in a strong-accented, broken English, while bringing two fingers up to her mouth, “I need cigarette.”

I pieced together what I had and all of a sudden, I thought I had a starving drug addict who need a quick fix and was following me to my room to steal all my money.

I only realised my mistake when we finally reached the fifth floor and I insisted she exit the elevator before me, I almost pushed her out and she resisted, shaking her head. Finally she found the energy to lift 4 fingers and say in Italian, “Quattro”. So, I pressed the fourth-floor button for her and stepped out. I started laughing at myself, terribly embarrassed for making all of those assumptions about her in 5 seconds and vowed not to do it again.

Our unconscious bias works in many ways, and one that is common is when we don’t have much information, we usually fill in the gaps however we feel makes sense. If I had an affinity towards her, I could have made her into an ‘Amy Winehouse-style-rockstar’ and would’ve probably asked her for an autograph. But I couldn’t “see” any affinities, (until she spoke Italian), so I invented the worst.

We do this all the time, day-in, day-out, with our diverse colleagues at work. Diverse teams can be stronger, more creative and more high-performing than homogenous teams[1], but they are only stronger and more effective, if we as team members and team leaders leverage on that diversity and create an inclusive environment. Which means:

  1. being aware of our biases and avoid making assumptions
  2. discovering where our diversities can be complementary rather than a threat and
  3. using small conscious actions to ensure everybody on the team feels valued.

What is Diversity?

Diversity is everything that creates differences between us that can generate a different mindset. It can refer to our age (millennials have a different way of looking at productivity than baby-boomers, believing more flexibility means being able to be more productive[2].) It can refer to our ethnicity, our national culture, our sexual orientation, gender, different physical abilities, the region we were brought up in, our socio-economic background, our education… the list goes on. Have you ever tried to interview a young engineering student and then followed that interview with a communication student? They seem to be planets apart in the way they describe their attributes and skills and how they demonstrate motivation for the job. Unless you modify your listening skills to take in more than just the words they are using you might miss out on hiring the best person for the job.

Diverse teams can take a little longer to become high performing than homogenous teams[3], but once they get past the initial stages of prejudging, stereotyping and making assumptions, they can be more effective. We cannot assume though that just because we hire the eight most creative diverse team members for our next project that we are going to reach our objectives easily. Diversity without inclusion can lead to underperforming teams[4].

 How can we create an inclusive culture?

Avoid exclusion. Not all differences are visible. The invisible ones are generally the ones that generate filling in the gaps with prejudgments and we start labelling our colleagues as ‘unreliable, lazy, not long enough in the company, too long in the company, wants to be noticed, shy…’ . If I see that you have a different skin colour to mine or I hear that you have a different accent, I will put two and two together, ask you questions and eventually will know where our differences lie. This will help me understand how I may have to modify my communication with you or think twice about interpreting what you say. Maybe I will consider the best way to give you feedback in order to not offend you.

When the differences are not so obvious, we don’t realise that we need to modify our behaviour because we don’t ask the same questions. Imagine you have a team member who doesn’t hear very well. You don't see the tiny hearing aid she wears, so it is difficult for you to be aware of this disability. If you don’t know, you won’t make any changes to the way you communicate with her. She may end up feeling a little excluded from the team because she isn’t able to leap in and exchange ideas as freely at meetings, feeling she may not have understood all the details. You also note that she doesn’t offer many suggestions at meetings and you write her off as not very interested in the project and you end up hardly ever asking her for input. In the end run, she will likely feel excluded and lose motivation. However, if you know she has a hearing disability, you start to consider how you can include her more in the team meetings. ‘Should I look at her when I speak so she can read my lips? Should I use Skype with camera rather than just the phone when we speak to help her get the message? Should I ensure the whole team knows about this so that when we have team meetings everybody is more careful?’  That is Inclusion. Making every team member feel valued.

Inclusion means avoiding making assumptions that we are all the same. We are all different and we need to be treated differently. We think differently, behave differently, react differently and therefore we need to communicate differently with each of the people on our team. Inclusion is about modifying small actions to make everyone on the team feel valued and feel as though they belong. This allows everyone to feel they can be themselves. A person who feels they belong, will be more motivated to participate in reaching objectives of the team. A person who feels they belong will feel they have everything to gain in being creative and the team spirit will soar, meaning more retention and better collaboration[5]. Inclusive teams make better business decisions up to 87% of the time and take decisions two times faster with half of the meetings.[6]

What kind of small actions create inclusiveness? They are simpler than you think. Open up, be curious about your colleagues and think before you speak. Say good morning to everyone when you enter the office. Occasionally go and have a coffee with someone you normally wouldn’t share a coffee with. Ensure you give the opportunity to introverts to speak up in meetings. Be aware of your biases when interviewing job candidates or when considering who to promote. As a test, write a list of the people you promoted last year. How similar were they? Were they all men, all women, all white, all engineers, same age, same culture, same education background, same outgoing personality? If so, why?

Even when we have good intentions, our assumptions get in the way, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you occasionally say the wrong thing. Put the error into your bag of 'things to be aware of'. I was at a networking conference in Zurich a couple of years ago where I met an Australian woman who had just moved to Switzerland. She was wearing a wedding ring and carried a beautiful black, patent-leather Prada handbag over her wrist. While chatting to her I asked, “Did you move to Zurich with your husband?” “Actually”, she replied, ‘I moved here with my wife.” Oops. There I was telling her I train D&I and I am the first to make assumptions. I made a mental note to myself to avoid using the word husband and wife in the future and just use, ‘spouse’ or ‘partner’. In English these words are genderless. But we forget our good intentions. Six months later I was talking to a young British man who had just moved to Central America. I saw he was wearing a wedding ring and I was curious how he and his family were integrating, so I asked, “Did you move here with your wife?” “Actually,” he replied, “I came over with my husband.’’ Grrrr….

 

 

[1] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[2] ‘Millennials at work’, Bentley University/ November 2014

[3] ‘Unravelling the diversity-performance link in multicultural teams: meta-analysis of studies on the impact of cultural diversity in teams’, by Günter K. Stahl; Martha Maznevski; Andreas Voigt and Karsten Jonsen, 2007.

[4] Idem

[5] Diversity Matters, McKinsey, 2015 Inclusive Leadership: The View From Six Countries, Catalyst, 2014, Driving Retention and Performance Through Employee Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, 2008 ;

[6] Diversity + Inclusion = Better Decision Making at Work, Erik Larson, Forbes Magazine, September 2017

 

Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

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Gender is one of the diversity factors of global teams; men and women do have different ways of viewing the world, of living life and of doing business in general, but it is just one of the factors. Focusing on gender difference alone does not create high-performing teams.

A 26-year-old male Brazilian software engineer who grew up on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro has a fairly different perspective of the world compared to a 55-year-old female Swiss marketing manager who grew up in the centre of Zurich. But is it’s not their gender alone that creates the filter through which they view the world. In global, project-based teams where organisations bring culturally diverse people together (virtually) so that they can gain on creativity, capitalise on less travel expenses and spend less on expatriate assignments, this culturally diverse combination is very common.

Try searching, ‘high performing teams’, and usually the results will come up with a list of attributes that includes trust, dealing with conflict, open communication, giving feedback and valuing diversity. The first item on that list needs to be valuing diversity. The way we deal with the previous listed factors differs widely whether we are in Mumbai, Frankfurt, Rio de Janeiro or Shanghai. Building trust with a Chinese colleague requires a different skill-set to building trust with a colleague from Hamburg. Giving feedback to a Brazilian requires very different competencies to giving feedback to a Swiss colleague. Only once we understand what the different cultural values of our colleagues are can be begin to value them and only then can we begin to contemplate how to build trust with them or how to deal with conflict in the team.

Let’s look at an example; we’ll take our two colleagues above, the software engineer and the marketing manager. What cultural values could these two team members have that might be causing them not to see eye to eye?

Destiny and Time

Let’s start with their relationship to destiny and time. We’ll insert the competency of giving feedback, just to give it some depth. These are components that every ‘high-performing’ team member in any project-based team is expected to deal with daily. Generally speaking a German-speaking Swiss usually feels that she or he is the master of her/his own destiny. They will wake up in the morning and plan out their day hour by hour (well actually, let’s face it, if you’ve ever worked with the Swiss, you know it’s closer to nano-minute by nano-minute planning), and ensure that they do everything possible within that day to reach the objectives they have set themselves. That means they won’t have any qualms about telling you that they can only speak to you on the phone for 11 more minutes because in 12 minutes they need to make another phone call. This same person is also not reluctant to give her boss some feedback at her upcoming performance evaluation telling him that his delegation skills are not great and that’s why she’s had a difficult year. Speaking directly and telling the truth, no matter how difficult it might be to hear, is what a German speaking Swiss generally feels is the best policy. Planning has always been an important attribute in Switzerland. A country of very little natural resources with only about ten percent of its land being arable due to all its lakes, mountains and rivers and where human capital is its prime resource, needs to plan to be able to feed its young. ‘Let’s make sure we harvest all the fruit by mid-October so that we can preserve it for the winter and continue to feed our children.’ That is what a resident of Zug would call a healthy relationship to time.

Now let’s look at our Brazilian software engineer, who generally believes that fate will ensure whether or not the ship-freighted container of goods you expect to be delivered on Thursday afternoon actually arrives then or not. Brazil is such a plentiful nation where twelve months a year you can go out and harvest fruit or find scurrying animals in the forest who can provide food. The forest doesn’t freeze over so there isn’t that much need to plan, life will work itself out. Plus let’s not forget the very unstable economy that the Brazilians have had to deal with this last century. In the 1990s they had inflation percentages of 3 to 4 digits. ‘Whatever I have in my pockets today won’t be worth anything tomorrow, so why save it, how can I possibly plan for tomorrow? I live for today and God willing, things will go well.’ A couple of years ago around a dinner table following a tedious and arduous seminar, a Brazilian colleague of mine remarked with a big smile on her face, ‘That went well, thanks be to God.’ The non-Brazilian colleague sitting with us told her quite abruptly, ‘It had nothing to do with God, we planned well.’ That did not go down very well.

‘Leave it to Batman’

Filipinos tend to use the term ‘Bahala Na’‘What will be will be’, or more traditionally, ‘Leave it to God’. Recently a Filipino in one of my workshops told me that young Filipinos today have started to give the credit to Batman, ‘Bahala na si Batman’ (leave it up to Batman). ‘Sure, Mum, I’ll be home by midnight…, if Batman wills it’.

And when it comes to giving negative feedback, well, let’s say that the Brazilians are generally far more indirect than the German-speaking Swiss at expressing negative opinions. Brazilians tend to want to save face, theirs and the people they are speaking to. Speaking indirectly keeps the harmony, the good relationship and ensures nobody is offended. That doesn’t mean they don’t give feedback, but it means you need to learn to understand it when they give it. I recollect a number of times while working in Brazil, where I had asked my team members to read over some documents to let me know if any errors had been made. Over a two-year span and many long documents, my Brazilian colleagues had not noted a single word to change. My French colleagues having read the same documents later on made a million amendments… What I hadn’t understood was the Brazilian way of giving feedback.

So what happens when a Swiss person is working on a project team with a Brazilian or a Filipino? How can they give feedback that will not be taken as face-losing criticism? How do they deal with conflict and build trust and accountability?

A Culturally Diverse High Performing Teamneeds to understand what the cultural values of its team members are and only then can each member start to see each situation through the perspective of the other team members. And only then can the team envisage creating its own ‘third culture’ or team charter to which it will function.

The Samba Drums are Rumbling – Working effectively with Brazilians

Christ, symbol of Rio de Janeiro, standing on top of Corcovado Hill, overlooking Guanabara Bay and Sugarloaf, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

With just over 100 days to the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games many people are getting ready to head down to Rio de Janeiro. Some for work, some for play and some for a bit of both. Most of us picture ourselves playing (or rather watching) futvolei on the beach sipping at fresh coconut water when we think of a long term project in Rio de Janeiro. So why is it that so many foreigners working in Brazil call HQ once a week with alarming stories about unmet deadlines and Brazilian colleagues who don’t do what they say they would do. The most common quips I’ve heard foreigners use when speaking of their Brazilian colleagues and suppliers is , ‘They’re fake,’ ‘They’re not committed to work,’ or the classic, ‘They never reach deadlines’. After a few weeks of making such remarks the person resigns themselves to the fact that they’re going to have a hard time getting their project accomplished but they don’t usually take the time to look into why they are interpreting the Brazilian work methods in this manner. Have you ever asked yourself what impression your Brazilian counterparts have of you? Little do we know what negative adjectives they may be using to describe our behaviour while we’re jumping up and down getting upset about a deadline that is not being met. I recently asked a former Brazilian colleague of mine what the most common adjectives Brazilians usually utter about foreigners. She came up with, ‘They’re inflexible, always stressed, and they usually feel that things should be done their way (the foreign way). How can we avoid these negative depictions and enjoy the merge of cultures?

These criticisms (on both sides) often come up in moments of frustration. When we’re relaxed and have time to consider why the people around us are behaving a certain way we usually find an explanation, but that still doesn’t help us achieve our goals and reach our deadlines. We need to go one step further. We need to consider what we have to change in our methods to be more effective when working with culturally diverse people who have different techniques to ours.

The three points I mention below are only an introduction. I shall not endeavour to write more in such a post, the aim of which is to help those of you heading to Rio de Janeiro enjoy the XXXI Olympiad.

Brazil is incredibly vast and has a huge population of over 207 million[1]) made up not only of natives but also a mixture of immigrants mainly from Japan, Germany, Spain, the Middle East, Italy and of course Portugal. It’s therefore hard to say that there is one common way of behaving, of managing teams and of communicating. Paolistas in the south will tell you that they are different to the Cariocas from Rio, who in turn say they are different to the North Easterners, and so it is. Consequently I shall try to stick to a few characteristics that most of the country has in common, with an emphasis on Carioca behaviour; we have to start somewhere.

“How is your grandmother’s hip replacement coming along?”      

If you ask a group of Brazilian individuals what their number one cultural value is, it is likely to be, ‘smiling’.  In order to be successful in Brazil the one most important word to remember is, relationship. There is little you can achieve unless you take the time and make the effort to get to know your partners, colleagues and service providers personally before going ahead and making any requests or explaining how something should be done.

Imagine this scene: You’ve been sitting at your computer all morning. Your tummy starts to grumble and you realize it’s lunchtime. You mention to your colleagues sitting beside you that you’re going out to get a sandwich. You pick up your sandwich take it back to your desk and decide to continue working while nibbling at the sandwich. My dear reader, that is mistake number 1 in Brazil. Relationships are a vital part to getting any job done and therefore having lunch with your colleagues and getting to know about their families, their spouses, children, grandmother, aunts, uncles, their cats’ and dogs’ names and their hobbies is a vital part of learning to do business in Brazil. The work sphere and the private sphere are mingled into one. If you are leading a group of Brazilian employees make sure you show your interest in their private lives. Brazilians generally prefer to build a relationship of trust and confidence with the people they do business with. Once they trust you, it will be instinctive for them to want to help you reach your objectives. If your service provider offers you a cafezinho before getting down to work don’t even contemplate refusing, irrespective of how many coffees you may already have had that day. The offer to share a coffee is not just to make sure you feel welcome, but it is a chance for them to get to know you a little bit better before deciding whether they would like to work with you. If you’re working on a big long-term project, take the time for the two hour lunches and don’t talk business over lunch; pull out your phone and share your photos of your nephews, nieces and puppy dogs too.

“I’m sure she said it would be here on Thursday.”

One of the most difficult issues that foreigners in Brazil tend to deal with is having to read between the Brazilian lines. How do you make a decision when you cannot tell if your interlocutor is saying yes or no to your request or when your subordinates don’t open up and debate your ideas. Think about the relationship element we mentioned, add the fact that Brazil is a harmonious culture not wanting to offend anybody (remember the smile) and add a colonial history where the big farmers were boss. It is rare to hear a Brazilian out rightly say, ‘No’. It doesn’t matter how ludicrous he or she finds your request or the fact that a government official in Brasilia cannot possibly get the fifty work permits you requested for Thursday on time for all your staff members to arrive in the country, they will rarely use the word, ‘No’. Instead you’ll often hear ‘vamos ver’ (we’ll see), or, ‘Thursday could be possible’, when in fact Thursday is actually out of the question. So on Thursday afternoon you’re looking at your watch every 20 minutes waiting to receive the fifty work permits for the staff members arriving in the country the next day. You call the official angrily telling her she said they’d be there on Thursday, your blood pressure starts to rise and then the frustrating negative comments start to pour out. Little do you realize that your Brazilian government official had actually said. ‘No’, you just didn’t hear it, or rather you didn’t pick up on it. When making requests or explaining how you would like something to be done, try to pick up on the gestures and facial expressions the person opposite you feels she is openly using. You will learn to read the, ‘No’ and not fall into the mistake of waiting for something that was never intended to arrive.

‘O jeitinho Brasileiro’

I’m going to finish on an optimistic note. Brazilians are generally extremely optimistic, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’, or in Brazilian terms, ‘o jeitinho Brasileiro’. You’ve probably heard of it or even seen it done. There is so much admin and bureaucracy to get through in Brazil, that even the Brazilians complain about it knowing very well that all this red tape deters everybody from accomplishing their goals and reaching deadlines promptly. Therefore Brazilians become very creative when having to find solutions to get around red tape and generally in terms of problem solving. They are adventurous and will look for new opportunities to find new ideas. Often they will not even tell you that there is a problem to solve because they’re proud to be able to solve it for themselves using their flexibility. The fact of not knowing there was a problem often leaves foreigners surprised and feeling that the Brazilian is trying to hide some bigger problem. Often they won’t tell you of the problem if they think you’re not the kind of person who accepts bending rules. Rules are not always followed to a T and you may not always want to know how the issue was solved, but low and behold, your event will start on time as per plan, even if it’s a last minute patch up. The backstage may look little untidy but the stage will be as sparkling as the sea at Copacabana beach on a fresh midweek morning with the sunrise beaming over Sugarloaf.

[1] http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/brazil-population/

 

Working Down Under

Kangaroos on the road

So you’ve finally got the chance to head Down Under on assignment for a couple of years or you have an Australian colleague or two who have joined your project team for the next fifteen months. Don’t be fooled by the laid-back reputation that Australians are renowned for; deadlines will be met and your Aussie colleagues will let you know if they don’t agree with your decisions.

The interview below is in German and it discusses some communication and behavioural challenges that you may face when working with Australians. The German grammar in the video has plenty of room for improvement although I hope the intention comes through – at least the accent is ‘dinky-di’ Aussie. For the non-German speaking readers,  here are some helpful suggestions for creating an atmosphere of trust and making your team effective when working with Australians. There certainly are plenty of Aussies out there working in the sports event world, so don’t consider it to be too unlikely to have one or two on your team.

  1. Equality -Australians strive for equality and will call the Prime Minister, their child’s teacher and their taxi driver by their first name, no titles, surnames or special considerations. In a business situation, treat everybody equally, i.e. if you’re leading a meeting be sure to ask your Aussie subordinates for their opinions, especially if they are the experts on the subject matter.
  2. Be ‘unassuming‘ – play down your accomplishments. Unless somebody has asked you about your engineering discoveries and your technological feats, don’t offer the information. It’s not that your Australian colleagues won’t find your accomplishments interesting, but if someone asks you what you do for a living, there’s no need to start the explanation with where you did your MBA to achieve where you are today; you’ll put the table guests to sleep.
  3. Mateship‘ – if you’re the boss, don’t behave in an authoritarian manner with your subordinates, take the time to get to know them and treat them as your ‘mates’. Before you go to the office on Monday morning be sure to read up on the weekend sports results as they’ll surely be discussed before the weekly update meeting. Enjoy an after-work drink together (it doesn’t have to be alcoholic) or invite them to your Sunday BBQ. Keep in mind that if you invite them to a game of golf, your Aussie subordinates are not going to lose the game to make you look better.
  4. Don’t forget to use humour, especially when things aren’t going well. Australian humour is often ironic and self-deprecating. It’s a way to keep the atmosphere relaxed. Even if you have no idea what the joke’s punch line meant, at least give an appreciative smile. One of the worst criticisms you’ll hear from an Australian is, ‘He can’t take a joke.’
  5. Don’t forget that although cities like Melbourne and Sydney are very multicultural, Australia has a lot of British heritage. So remember to always be polite and don’t criticise your colleagues too directly or you’ll create enemies amongst your co-workers and remember that Australians generally support the underdog in any competition, so if that’s not you, you won’t be making mates. Use humour in situations of conflict to lighten up the atmosphere.

Australia is a country of immigrants who have endeavoured to make their children’s lives more prosperous than their own may have been. Each individual you meet will have a lot of different cultural influences that will dominate in certain situations, whether that be their gender, their profession, their generation, religion or their national heritage. Therefore the above five points may not ring true for each individual you meet, however it’s a starting point for building your team.

Generally, when doing business with other cultures the three steps to keep in mind are:

  1. Learn what your values are and your preferred methods of communication. For example, are you offended if your boss doesn’t ask you for your expert opinion in meetings, or on the contrary are you offended and feel your boss is being aggressive if she does ask for your opinion in a group meeting?
  2. Learn what the other person’s cultural values are (whether they be national, generational, gender based etc.) and their preferred methods of communication.
  3. Find out where the largest gap between the two cultures is and learn what you can do to minimise the gap to create a relationship of trust. Or even better, learn what the similarities are and how you can use those similarities to become more effective with your team members.

If you would like to assess your intercultural competencies and see which areas may need development you can do the Intercultural Readiness Check (IRC). Contact Culturelink for more information.

“Mateship and Mutiny”… Three steps to building trust amongst cultures

Slide1 copyAn Italian lawyer travelling back home to Rome after a business trip in Japan, (let’s call her Elisabetta), thinks about the meetings she just held in Tokyo. Her gut feeling is that she wasn’t very successful but she can’t really place her finger on what went wrong. Why did she have the feeling that her Japanese business associates didn’t really consider her to be the most competent of lawyers?

Trainers will often tell you that when you work with somebody who has a different cultural background to yours you need to adapt. OK, great. That doesn’t sound too hard. I mean, how hard is it to learn how to use chopsticks in Japan, or to not use your left hand at the table in Qatar? We usually don’t mind adapting when the situation calls for changing a physical habit but if the adaptation calls for a change in behaviour that contradicts our deep down values and that is contrary to the way we were educated, contrary to what we believe to be the ‘right’ way of behaving, then it becomes almost agonising and sometimes comical.

Nobody had told Elisabetta that she needed to control her emotions during her business meetings in Japan. However, even if somebody had informed her, would she have felt comfortable behaving so unnaturally? Italians tend to wear their heart on their sleeves. If they’re happy they’ll smile and laugh with joy, if they’re angry they’ll grimace with frustration, if they’re confused their forehead will wrinkle in a puzzled frown, irrespective of whether they are in a business meeting or having lunch with the family. The Japanese say, “Only a dead fish has an open mouth,” and a true professional controls his/her feelings in a business meeting. Any loss of control is deemed unprofessional. So Elisabetta’s gut feeling was probably spot on. The meeting probably didn’t go down so well.

Being able to build trust with your clients, colleagues or service providers of different cultural backgrounds requires “code-switching” or adapting your communication techniques and ways of behaving.

Milton Bennet says that intercultural sensitivity is not natural and that ‘Adaptation means we need to consciously shift our perspective and intentionally alter our behaviour[1]. Therefore in order to become interculturally competent we need to deliberately work at certain skills that are not innate such as giving direct negative feedback to one of our very direct German subordinates even though we are the type of person who usually speaks very indirectly. It’s the kind of thought that gives you a stomach-ache just imagining the scene. The evening before an evaluation meeting, you stand in front of the mirror at home practising all the negative things you need to say and then you get to the meeting the next morning and pofff… it just doesn’t come out as you wanted. You couldn’t help but camouflage the negative points with niceties and flattery even though you really needed to tell the person in front of you that her delegation techniques are not working. So she walks away from the meeting thinking she’s had an extremely good year and that her management skills are great. So much for directness.

Step 1: Know yourself

The first step to becoming interculturally competent is not to know how the other culture functions, but rather to know yourself. You need to take a good look at yourself and ask yourself, “What are my preferred ways of communicating, what are my most common ways of behaving in meetings and in situations of conflict and how do I problem solve?”

What’s the use of a trainer telling you that you need to adapt if you don’t know what to adapt from?

Let’s take a concrete example. You’re the head of your department and you were brought up in an egalitarian society. During a meeting you would always consider asking the opinion of your expert subordinates before making an important decision because you know that their advice is likely to be vital. Now, go and sit in a meeting with colleagues who were brought up in a culture that does not veneer a subordinate’s opinion and you’ll likely come out of that meeting pulling your hair out, wondering, “Why are they all just agreeing with me, why didn’t anybody question the upcoming deadlines?” If you are used to debating in meetings and receiving assorted input, this kind of behaviour will frustrate you and worse you’ll likely start labelling your colleagues as incompetent, unreliable and just plain lazy.

Step 2: Learn about the values of the ‘other’ culture (or those you mostly do business with).

Working with people of other cultural backgrounds involves developing competences that we do not necessarily have naturally, such as learning to ‘read the air’ in Japan. If you’re classified as Kuuki Yomenai in Japan, it probably means that you cannot ‘read the air’, or you cannot decipher social situations, such as not understanding body language. The Japanese are usually non-conflictual and your Japanese service provider would not embarrass you or make you lose face by replying to a last minute outrageous request of yours with an outright ‘No’. He will likely say, “It would be very difficult.” Reading his body language you will hopefully understand that he is actually saying, ‘Are you insane, your request is completely out of the question!’ If you had ’read the air’ then you would quickly move on and find a new service provider. If you aren’t capable of reading the air and you’re an eternal optimist, then you’re probably still sitting around waiting for the difficult situation in Tokyo to be made possible.

Step 3: Code switching – adapting your style

So, if step 1 is knowing how you behave, for example, ‘as an egalitarian with indirect speech,’ and step 2 is understanding how the person in front of you behaves, then step 3 is to ‘code switch’ or adapt your behaviour and communication techniques to be more comprehensible to the person in opposite you.

If we consider our style of communicating and behaving as a code that is common amongst people who have a similar background to ours then it is natural that we don’t have to explain our behaviour to them, they will subconsciously understand without having to try and decipher it. For example, a Swiss manager in a meeting with Swiss subordinates will naturally ask for the consensus of his whole team before making a decision. This allows the Swiss team to feel they have participated in the decision-making process (all related to the deep down value of direct democracy in Switzerland). Any behaviour that the manager uses which differs to that would likely make the subordinates feel as though the manager is hiding something and that he is not quite trustworthy. If he doesn’t adapt he may lose the respect of his Swiss subordinates which in the long run could lead to rebellion.

So before you order that, ‘Doing Business in Australia’ handbook and learn how to talk about Aussie Rules football while sipping at a caffé latte at the Monday morning meetings, take a look in the mirror and inspect yourself closely at your next meetings.

[1] Milton Bennett, “Towards Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity”, Intercultural Press, 1993. 21-71.