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I recently rolled out some updates to our Executive Benefits for our leadership team from different countries. I started by explaining why the change happened and provided some context before getting to the changes as I thought people might understand the reasoning behind the changes. Trying to explain the “why” after the announcement might sound like a bunch of excuses, and I figured people would stop listening by then because they’d be stuck with the “what.”
My assumptions were wrongly assumed. By the end of my game, some of our executives were excited. They distrusted my lengthy explanation leading to the change because they believed I was hiding something. In their opinion, they stopped listening during the “why” because they thought the “what” would come when the other shoe dropped.
As companies become increasingly global and teams become more diverse, things can get incredibly lost in translation. Everyone knows what happens when we assume it: it can get people into trouble. People communicate differently across cultures, nationalities, personality types, and even different organizations. Global teammates can engage in more productive communication by encouraging awareness of these differences.
Related: Going Global? 3 strategies to ensure nothing gets lost in translation
There is no universal communication style
Let’s stop assuming that the way we communicate is a baseline. Even families share differently. The further away the regions, countries or organizations are, the greater the risk that these differences can lead to misunderstandings and potentially affect industrial relations. Working in a flat organization, I’ve gotten used to being able to make decisions and knowing that my team has my back. In hierarchical organizations, the frustration of waiting for one partner to check with someone else before making any decision can strain a working relationship.
Company employees working in different parts of the world have different expectations and certain industries may have unspoken rules. Our company encourages a learning environment and when we recently acquired a company in London and wanted to help with the integration we brought our team with us for the experience. However, our UK colleagues felt uncomfortable and wondered why there were so many ‘extra’ people in the room who didn’t seem to add value. Even if the company’s primary language is English, numerous factors can come into play and create barriers to effective communication.
See also: How to avoid cultural missteps when doing business with other countries
Learn what works instead of using clichés
To find out what works for a person’s communication style, be open to learning directly from them as individuals, rather than assuming what will work based on another country’s assumptions. Within any culture, several factors can affect the way people communicate. Think about how people in New York and Texas communicate, or even people in different parts of a single state. While culture can inspire certain norms for the way people communicate, we should never assume that someone from a particular country automatically falls under these stereotypes.
The things we say or do can have very different meanings across cultures, but how a person internalizes these differences and chooses to communicate those feelings can vary from person to person. Americans are stricter about showing up to meetings on time, while other countries see time as more fluid and don’t think twice about showing up to an appointment 10 minutes late. Some people might get frustrated with this behavior and take it as a personal affront, or we might learn to conform and acknowledge that our behavior is not considered rude in some cultures and instead embrace our communication differences.
See also: How effective leaders communicate across cultures
Find a training method that works for your business
In a global company with remote teams, there are no longer organic ways for people to acknowledge communication differences, so we need to be more conscious of pointing that out. Unless people experience other environments that allow them to recognize and appreciate differences in communication, they may never recognize them on their own. Instead of relying on one person or team to offer advice on all of the communication differences that might exist in a global team, equip every person in the organization with this capability.
Explain how people communicate differently and help people understand that we all bring our own biases. Teach your employees what it means to work in an inclusive culture. At our company, we use Eric Meyer’s book, The Culture Map, as a shared resource to have this conversation as it serves as a safety net to open all of our minds to our similarities and our differences. We’ve built workshops around the book and are incorporating it into our onboarding curriculum so we can all learn from each other and appreciate the similarities and differences of different cultures.
This book may not be the right solution for every organization, but executives with remote teams expanding into larger and larger geographies should look for tools to achieve more cohesive communication. Many workplaces use personality tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram, or the Clifton Strengths Finder to better understand individual communication styles. Regardless of the approach, the most important step is to use this information to adapt our communication styles to different environments and to be respectful of others regardless of our differences.
As we work with increasingly global teams, we must learn to control our biases—professional, personal, and cultural—so that we don’t get in the way. Others may not share our views, and not everyone will fall into the trap of stereotypical assumptions. Team leaders should want to learn more about the differences in the way their team members communicate and encourage others to be aware and adapt to different environments. When they do that, they end up with better people, less friction, and ultimately more robust business strategies.
See also: How leaders can use Myers-Briggs, DISC, and FIRO-B tests to drive organizational culture