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.