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

 

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.