I’ve posted a lot about how communication style varies dramatically from one culture to another (including this great infographic on how different cultures negotiate). It’s both very obvious, a clear variation in how we interact, and at the same time deviously subtle in how quickly it can derail an otherwise healthy team and project.
Different Styles Of Communication
Low context cultures, most often associated with Western, industrialized countries, pride themselves on a directness that is unparalleled in other cultures. Lack of subtlety and being “honest and straight-shooting” is the norm. But these cultures end up missing most of the conversation when confronted with high context, rich communication styles.
High context cultures (especially Middle Eastern and Asian, but also South American, some European, and African countries) don’t know how to communicate in this simple, direct style. Confronted with direct, low-context partners, it’s as if 90% of their vocabulary is stripped away. The rich subtlety conveyed in circumstance, timing, silence, body language, story telling, deference, saving face, and tone are missing — leaving behind nothing but blunt, inelegant words (often, to make matters worse, in a second or third language on top of it).
Understanding one another’s communication style and being able to adapt, and interpret signals from both cultures accurately, is critical.
The Global Project Compass™ (introduced in Part 1) identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by communication style:
- Continuous Improvement Plan
- Segregation of Duties
- Project Management Plan
- Project Monitoring, Execution, & Control
- Change Control & Management
- Communications Plan
- Performance Measurement
Continuous Improvement Plan
Your continuous improvement plan is absolutely affected by other business cultural preferences, but communication style has a huge impact. Continuous improvement relies on understanding each other without ambiguity. Anything that stands in the way will throw sand into a delicately working machine. Processes like CMMI (the Capability Maturity Model) rely on putting complex, integrated processes into action. Everyone has to understand the process, support it, and pursue it’s objectives.
Segregation of Duties
The Compass also identifies segregation of duties as highly affected by communication style. Clearly defined roles are important in any organization. Segregation of duties is intended to create checks and balances to enforce standards or, in some cases, prevent fraud or malfeasance. One way of looking at this is whether control is unchecked in one person (or one office). A common reason to separate quality assurance, giving it authority on its own, is to support a separate office that has the authority to enforce quality (or at least, stop a project that is not going well).
For this to work, communication lines must be clear. How can quality assurance know how the project is going if there is limited, inaccurate, or unclear communication?
It’s important to note that power distance also deeply affects segregation of duties. The political alignments and often muddied visibility of some organizations create complex, co-dependent relationships. These relationships interfere with the goals of segregating duties.
Project Management, Monitoring, and Change Control
Excellent project management relies on clear communication as well. Across a culturally diverse organization, “clear communication” can mean many things. How does the American manager interpret his Chinese subordinate’s silence, when critical feedback is expected? How will an Indian employee react to the direct communication of a German boss causes him to lose face? Building a project management plan that works well within the multiple, diverse cultural environments of a multinational organization is a challenge.
Knowing how your team, and your company, is doing demands no ambiguity. You’ve got to be able to assess performance accurately. For business performance, that means getting accurate, timely information. To assess your team, you need to understand and assess your team member’s contribution. That means understanding what everyone has to say, in their own subtle or not-so-subtle communication style.
Western-style “360 evaluations,” where employees critically evaluate their peers, subordinates, and superiors, rely on American-style direct communication. When used in other cultural settings the 360 evaluation completely fails. When compared to typical American feedback, French and German respondents more easily criticize, but hold back compliments — so evaluations appear much less positive. In many Asian cultures, the idea of openly criticizing is taboo. Here, evaluations come back with seemingly perfect marks — and that can lead to incorrectly concluding that the Asian office is perfect.
Communication: The Tip Of The Iceberg
Most often, problems between multinational teams get put down to bad communication. It’s true that communication is important. It’s also true that most cross cultural situations have communication barriers (and often serious problems). How well people communicate — or, how poorly your team is communicating — is a very visual indication that there are problems.
Just like an iceberg floating in the ocean, this visual indicator usually means there is more going on beneath the surface. When your team isn’t communicating, it’s time to look for other problems too.
Cover graphic attribution: The artist and visual designer Yang Liu was born in China and lives in Germany since she was 14. By growing up in two very different places with very different traditions she was able to experience the differences between the two cultures first-hand.