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.