Communication Style And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

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).

Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)
Communication Style: Expressing Opinions (East vs. West)

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:

  1. Continuous Improvement Plan
  2. Segregation of Duties
  3. Project Management Plan
  4. Project Monitoring, Execution, & Control
  5. Change Control & Management
  6. Communications Plan
  7. 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.

Performance Measurement

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.

Power Distance And International Success

If you missed the first part of this six-part series, see: Part 1 of the series, Creating An International Culture Of Success, or see the entire series right here.

I’ve posted in depth on power distance and how it varies from one culture to another. To recap, power distance, or “PDI,” is the degree of inequality in society and the emotional distance that separates subordinates from superiors.

Many Western cultures thrive on very low power distance principles. Since most of today’s modern management theory has come directly from the West, this means these theories work great in Western cultures but tend to have problems in the East.

Most modern management expects employees to think independently, be honest and critical, question the status quo, and openly voice disagreement. Many recent management tools, such as Scrum and Agile methods, empower the employee so much that the line between “boss” and “employee” becomes blurred and — sometimes — almost eradicated.

Across much of the Middle East and Asia, this approach fails miserably. Traditional organizational structures don’t tolerate this approach. Direct criticism and questioning tends to be viewed as dissent. Respect for seniority, wisdom, and age play into it. Decision making happens at higher levels in the company, and decisions flow downward. Employees are expected to act in unison, provide information when requested, and respond like a well-oiled machine to the strategic decisions of their senior management.

The Global Project Compass™ (introduced previously) covers 27 project management disciplines. It identifies the following management disciplines as being most directly affected by power distance:

  1. Goal Setting
  2. Organizational Structure & Policy Setting
  3. Standard Compliance
  4. Business Case Validation
  5. Positive Assurance of Compliance

Goal Setting

As pointed out in the introduction, different cultures have different expectations about where their goals come from. Employees that are used to low power distance will feel slighted if they are not closely involved in setting goals, or if their voice is not heard. On the other end of the spectrum, those accustomed to being told what to do may conclude that their boss doesn’t really know what’s going on if too many questions are asked or if the boss seems to rely on subordinate opinions.

Organizational Structure & Policy Setting

Closely related to goal setting is policy setting, and that includes the hierarchy (or lack of hierarchy) in an organization itself. Employees from high power distance cultures tend to feel far more comfortable in an environment that provides clearly defined roles. That translates into greater hierarchy, and more clearly responsibilities. As Honeywell learned, without adequate training and management programs, their Chinese R&D department really had no idea how to go about inventing truly new products.

Standards Compliance

Compliance is an interesting topic to explore, because it shows off a reversal of competence along the power distance spectrum. Employees accustomed to high power distance and being given clear guidelines tend to flourish when it comes to compliance. Such standards provide a clear set of instructions, set boundaries, and make the job an easy one to follow (at least, when the standards are well documented).

Unfortunately, with poorly defined or conflicting standards, problems occur. Poorly written rote instructions rapidly lead to chaos when those instructions are in conflict — and high power distance cultures also tend to demonstrate little critical thinking or problem solving here.

On the other hand, with a team that is used to low power distance, standards can become a “thorn in the side.” These teams — trained to think critically and voice their opinions — often struggle to see the rationale or validity of standards. They might push back against them, although when the standards themselves are questionable this can be a boon: Those same teams will quickly point out flaws (and perhaps push to have the standards disqualified).

Business Case Validation

Critical thinking, scenario planning, and a talent for seeing the future are traits needed when validating a business case. These skills tend to flourish at the executive level in high power distance cultures, while the critical thinking of low power distance teams can be incredibly valuable to examine every aspect of a business model.

Positive Assurance of Compliance

Making sure that you are complying with standards is often the responsibility of the quality assurance department or a separate standards body. Power distance and organizational structure play a huge role. Assurance of compliance carries with it a need for authority. Failure in compliance means, potentially, putting a stop to project activities, and challenging the organization and the team (at least, in so far as ensuring products conform to agreed standards). Organizational structure is important, but often the standards compliance body is not set up with adequate authority — in some cases, being subordinate to conflicting objectives (such as project management). Ensuring that the right structure exists; that there is a separation of concerns; and there is authority to act, is critical, and very dependent on the cultural biases at play.

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.

Creating An International Culture Of Success

The International Business Dimension

Multinational teams present new challenges for the International manager. There are logistics problems: How do you coordinate teams that work in different time zones? What kind of collaboration can you create in a team that rarely sees one another?

As well as the logistic problems come cultural problems. For example, successfully creating a culture of innovation can be a challenge. Honeywell experienced this, according to a November, 2013, Time article, when Rameshbabu Songukrishnasamy began working as general manager of the company’s R&D centers in Shanghai and Beijing. He found his employees were not innovating. They weren’t tinkering or inventing on their own — not a positive sign in an R&D lab! “They were happy just doing what they were asked to do,” Rameshbabu says. The problem is, R&D is about doing something new.

A project manager for a large corporation in Brazil recently told me that the PMI Book of Knowledge is used infrequently at best inside Brazilian projects. He also warned against assuming that someone with a PMI certification has extensive experience, as is the case in the US. — Moore, Brandi, The Little BRIC Book.

Rameshbabu found that his Chinese workers had a fear of failure. They worried that the company would be upset if their work did not yield positive results, so they didn’t experiment. Another problem is that some Chinese engineers “tend to shy away from critical questioning,” a process that is fundamental in R&D. “The reason they are able to make so much innovation in Silicon Valley is that people question the status quo and find alternative ways,” says Rameshbabu. But he found that Chinese culture and education focused on rote learning, not critical thinking.

Creating A Culture Of Success

Creating successful International programs requires understanding and adapting to different business cultures. Applying Western management practices in Asia will fail, just as surely as transplanting Western employees into an Eastern environment. Imagine an independent, critical thinker from Silicon Valley landing in Foxconn, Shenzhen — where challenging the status quo is forbidden.

Team dynamics play a huge factor in management style, objectives, and capabilities. Building a culture of innovation is just one example of where these dynamics become complicated. Power distance will affect everything from goal setting to how problems are socialized. Communication style can quickly lead to misunderstandings. Differences on the fluidity of time can mean completely missing the mark with customer deadlines. And differences in identity and engagement style can lead to initial confusion, bad first impressions, or distrust.

This is why understanding business cultural practices is so important. Hyrax International LLC has a program that explores each of these five preferences. The program examines each of 27 different management disciplines, such as goal setting, risk management, change management, and assessing outcomes. The affect of business culture on each discipline is explored and explained, providing a road map to success on the International management scene. The company also offers many free resources to explain and explore International project management, and is also sponsoring Successful International Project Management, an in depth book that maps project management processes to cultural preferences.

We’ll be posting five more parts to this article (read Part 2, or see the entire series right here) in the coming couple of weeks. Each post will look at one of the five business cultural preferences, and briefly introduce how that preference impacts and affects the 27 management disciplines.

Hyrax International LLC’s Global Project Compass™ is the only visual map that clearly shows the connection between business culture and business process. This is what makes Cross Cultural Management™ so much more effective than traditional management.

The Compass maps 27 project management disciplines directly to business cultural preferences, and shows how these preferences affect business. The goal of the Global Project Compass, and Hyrax International’s associated management program, is to show how culture affects businesses worldwide — and to provide a clear map on how businesses can adapt successfully.

10 Tips For International Business Success

I’m very pleased to announce our 10 Tips For International Business Success booklet is now available for free download. This first book in the series is a concise companion for International executives and managers. It provides 10 absolutely critical lessons when working abroad or with overseas partners and teams.

Tip #1: Time After Time

10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)
10 Tips For International Business Success (Zacharias Beckman)

Americans associate being late with being unreliable. But in many cultures, timeliness is not expected and can be construed as being rigid and uncompromising.

Unlike some Western cultures, many Asian and Latin cultures have higher cultural priorities than timeliness. For example, in some cultures it would be unthinkable to end a meeting because the allotted time had run out. This would be taken as a direct insult, essentially sending the message that your host is less important than your own time. It’s understood that if someone is late, it’s because they are invest- ing time with another person. In time, your turn will come as well. This difference leads to cultural conflict and misunderstanding…

Read the rest of this tip, including which countries and regions it applies to, strategies for working successfully with these cultures, and how to adjust to different business practices by downloading your copy today!

Get 10 More Tips, Free!

We wanted to make sure you get a fantastic value here, so there are actually 10 more tips in the book, along with quotes from business leaders and luminaries throughout the Global business industry:

Relationships are built between individuals, not between companies. Thus it’s important to keep the same people coming to India so the process doesn’t have to be repeated for each neophyte. When Western companies reassign resources too quickly and put someone new in charge of an India initiative, they program themselves for failure. — Gunjan Bagla, Doing Business in 21st-Century India

Look For More Tips…

Look for our other International guides, as soon as they go to press! Our other guides will be posted here, just like this one… Look for:

  • 10 Tips For International Travel
  • 10 Tips For Managing International Teams
  • 10 Tips For Communicating Globally

We’re delighted to offer them to you completely free, and hope you will enjoy reading them as much as we have enjoyed creating them.

What Is Collectivism?

Americans are motivated by personal choice and gain. But, many Asian cultures are not. Instead, these “collectivist” cultures are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit a person’s family and raise their personal “face” and their standing in the eyes of society. Understanding this fundamental difference is critical.

Hi, I am Zac Beckman, President of Hyrax International, and I want to talk about collectivism. When working with people from around the world, you’ll be quite surprised at how different their habits are and their expectations are. For example, if you’re working with Japanese partners, you may notice how surprised they are at how much free time Americans seem to have. Americans use this time for fitness, for taking time with their kids and family, going to movies. But they do it during the week. In Japan, the week is for the business. Business comes first. Personal time ends up on the weekends.

Indians have a similar cultural orientation. They may go to work kind of late in the morning, work a long afternoon, take a dinner break and then end up going back to work and working late into the evening until 10 or 11; even midnight. And that’s a practical matter because many Indian firms work with so many companies around the world that they need to adjust their schedule. But that again is putting the business first, ahead of family. This is what collectivism is.

Collectivism Is Thinking “We,” Before “I”

Collectivism is thinking about what’s good for the group, what’s good for the business, before thinking about what’s good for the individual. Americans are extremely individualist. This means that they make decisions based on what’s good for them personally. They move out of the house early because they want to be on their own. They make career decisions because it’s what they want to do. It’s really important to understand this difference, because it fundamentally changes how different teams, how people around the world, are motivated.

Americans are motivated by personal advancement and by personal gain. But, many Asian cultures, collectivist culture, are not motivated by those same things. Instead, they are motivated by what’s good for the group, what’s going to benefit their family the most, what’s going to raise their personal face and their standing in the eyes of society. For example, an American might be motivated by career advancement or a career change. But that exact same choice to somebody in Asia could mean loss of face, it could mean a lack of ability to hire friends into a new company, where they are relatively new themselves.

It’s the difference between knowing how to motivate individuals who are primarily concerned with their own career and their own advancement in society, versus knowing how to motivate somebody who is concerned about their social group. They are concerned about the well being of everybody around them and their standing in the eyes of that society.

Improving Multinational Team Collaboration

Power Distance in the Global Context: How business cultural preferences can directly impact your team’s ability to work together and communicate effectively.

When we talk about our own culture, it won’t seem like culture at all. It’s just the way things are. For example, if you’re American you believe everyone has a right to free speech and you think any thing else is a human rights violation. You also enjoy about two or three weeks of vacation each year. And you’re very prompt. You feel like your entire day is interrupted if someone’s late.

If you are Turkish, you know about free speech, but you probably don’t dare talk about it much. You are blissfully unaware that you have more official and not so official vacations than anyone else in Europe. And for you, time is fluid. Being half an hour late is fine, you don’t expect anybody else to be on time, so you plan on doing several things at once. These are examples of culture, and businesses have culture too.

Phil, a CEO at a US company, came to me telling me that they had outsourced all of their product development to India. But, they had a problem. They hadn’t met a single deadline in over a year. Product development was stalled. When I asked Phil what was wrong, he said the team in India was terrible at communication. They never raised a red flag if something didn’t make sense.

The problem is Phil was completely wrong. He was ascribing Western expectations to an Eastern team. The real problem was more complex, but the root of it was power distance. Power distance is the degree to which a boss and an employee are separated by society. And in the East power distance is very important. Employees can’t simply tell their boss that they think he is wrong. But Phil’s employees are rewarded for questioning and challenging and thinking outside of the box. He had no idea how unfamiliar this was for his India team.

We worked with Phil to develop a cross cultural training program. A year later, Phil’s company is doing great. Their new product just shipped and Phil told me that the team has hit every milestone perfectly. This is just a small part of how business culture can affect a global business. It’s why we created the business synergy compass; to guide businesses to success in the new global economy.

How Do I Communicate With My Overseas Team?

When it comes to delegating work, how can you communicate tasks to your overseas team, and know those tasks will be handled reliably? Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you might think.

Communicating with your overseas partner or your outsourced vendor can be a lot more complicated then you would think. Yes, sure, it’s fine to pick up the phone and send an email — and actually you should do that a lot. It’s extremely valuable to build those strong relationships and to maintain a lot of communication with your overseas partner. But, its easy to make mistakes when you assume that they are going to be communicating with you in exactly the same way.

Assumptions And How We Communicate

So, for example, we have had clients that would pick up a phone and call their Chinese or their Indian partner to brainstorm about ideas. But, because of misunderstandings between the two parties and between power distance and saving face, the partner over in China, or in India, might take that brainstorming session to be a directive to get to work on something. And so they throw everything else out and the schedule goes out with it — and they start working on something new. And month’s later, you’re surprised — what the heck happened? Why are they working on that? We were just talking about a fun idea we had.

Communicate Assignments Without Misunderstandings

So, how do you avoid misunderstandings like that? Well, one of the most important things you can do is make sure that you have a procedure or a system in place to manage tasks, and assignments, and responsibilities between your teams. There are a number of systems that we’ve used with our clients. Some of them are pretty simple. Basecamp is very popular. We actually don’t recommend Basecamp. It’s not too hard to get lost in Basecamp and much like sending a phone message or an email, people can start pointing fingers, saying, “Oh, I thought you had that task,” “No I had that task.” Also, base camp doesn’t have a great audit trail. Instead we tend to recommend more advanced systems that provide better audit trails, better assignment tracking, and permission and workflow systems.

Salesforce, if you are in a sales organization, actually does a great job of assigning tasks to different people, keeping track of records, who made a call, who didn’t, where is that customer support ticket. If you’re in a more technical discipline, then tools like Rally and Atlassian’s JIRA products are excellent project management tools. They can also be used for customer service management, ticket management or even call tracking because they are very customizable. Especially JIRA which has a very powerful workflow management system that you can customize to do whatever you want. But the best thing with all of these tools — Salesforce, Rally, JIRA and host of other ones — they work over the world wide web, they work on mobile phones, and they all have excellent audit trails, so you can see what has happened, who was assigned the task, and why did they give it to somebody else… And they also make it very easy to expose all of this information to anybody that wants to see it.

So, our number one recommendation, when we are talking about how do you get a hold of your team whose overseas, you can get a hold of them on the phone and with email. But you shouldn’t use those methods to communicate tasks or assignments or new requirements. Those things, if its official, it needs to go into a system. And everybody needs to understand that the system is what dictates who is working on what. That way when your team in China receives a call from the CEO saying, “Hey, what about this great idea?” — well, they’ll understand that if it wasn’t assigned to them in the system, they’re not supposed to start working on it.