batman_129182140_m

Culturally Diverse High Performing Teams

 

batman_129182140_m

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.

Kangaroos on the road

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.

Slide1 copy

“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.