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Improve your Global Business Communications Skills

Improve your Global Business Communications Skills

By: Erin Meyer, author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Public Affairs Books, 2014)

In today’s globalized economy, it’s not unusual for an American to give a presentation in China, an Italian to negotiate a deal in Nigeria, or for a German to manage a team of Brazilians. And today’s highly-connected world provides a myriad of ways to conduct global business: by phone, e-mail, video conference, or in person. 

Yet despite these options, it’s not uncommon for cultural signals to be misinterpreted and confused. The result can lead to misunderstandings -- or worse -- lost business opportunities. 

The more the world globalizes, the more important our ability to communicate globally becomes. One of the biggest challenges arises when you are managing a multi-cultural team, with people from several cultures other than your own who need to work together effectively. 

Here are a few simple strategies for Americans who are looking to master global business communications and improve their international effectiveness.

Know When to Be Quiet
In the American school system, there is often a participation bonus: the participants who speak up the most receive credit for that, and it boosts their grade. In the workplace, it is not just appropriate but desirable and expected that employees make their voices heard.

On the other hand, in many Asian cultures, the importance of waiting carefully for your counterparts to finish their sentences before you speak demonstrates both valued listening skills and communication skills. This is true from Korea to Thailand.

Witness the following situation:

The first global team Eric managed was made up of 5 Americans and 2 Koreans.  He noticed quickly that during these meetings the Koreans hardly spoke while the Americans were all working hard to make their voices heard.  

After one meeting he overheard an American teammate remarking, “They’re just so shy!  They certainly don’t have much to contribute!” 

Later he pulled one of the Korean team-members aside and asked how she felt things were going. She responded that she found it difficult to participate because the Americans were constantly interrupting and talking on top of one another. “I would like to share my points but I can’t find a moment to get my voice in edgewise”.

When leading a global team, don’t mistake a lack of participation for a lack of something to say. Build an opportunity into the agenda for each person to contribute. Implement a system where each participant has to raise his hand before speaking to help level the playing field. 

At the end of the meeting go around and ask each person for a last reflection. You might find at that point that those who were silent throughout the meeting still have something important to say. Sometimes knowing when to be quiet can make all the difference.

Build Trust from the Heart
In task-based cultures such as the US, Australia, or Germany, trust is cognitive: it is built through work. If you do good work and prove to be reliable and effective, I come to trust you. The US is one of the most task-based parts of the world, and much more task-based than all emerging markets. 

In relationship-based societies such as Brazil, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, trust results from spending time getting to know each other at a personal level. 

This cultural contrast can sabotage business outcomes. As one American manager reported, “The first time we bid for business in Turkey, we worked hard to get the presentation just right and the brochures perfect. But we didn’t invest the necessary time to develop a personal bond with the people we would be working with. We lost the business, and learned that we needed to spend just as much time sharing meals and building a friendship with our counterparts as we did showing our product was top of the line.”

When you bring together team members from around the world, invest ample time up front in building up this personal trust. A little investment in building trust early on is likely to pay big long-term dividends in team efficiency -- and in business success.

Disagree Agreeably
Confrontation is seen as healthy and useful in some cultures, but it can be downright harmful in others. Compare these two quotes from recent executive interviews:

“In the Indonesian culture, we consider confrontation as rude, aggressive, and disrespectful. Open disagreement, particularly in a group forum, is strongly avoided. Even asking another’s point of view can feel confrontational in our culture. We had a meeting with a group of American managers from headquarters, and they went around the table asking each of us: “What do you think about this? What do you think about this? What do you think about this?” At first we were just shocked that we would be put on the spot in a meeting with a lot of people. That is just an insult!”

Compare the scene above with this scenario:

“Confrontation is part of our French culture. The French school system teaches us to first build up our thesis (one side of the argument) and then to build up our antithesis (the opposite side of the argument) before coming to a synthesis (conclusion). And this is exactly how we intuitively conduct meetings. On French teams, conflict and dissonance are seen as revealing hidden contradiction and stimulating new thinking. We make our points passionately. We like to disagree openly. We like to say things that shock. And afterwards we feel that was a great meeting and cheerfully say, “See you next time!” With confrontation, you reach excellence, you have more creativity, and you eliminate risk.”

Now, imagine that you have to lead a team that includes French and Indonesians, plus a few other cultures mixed in.  How on earth can you cope?

Here are some recommendations on how to manage cross-cultural teams:

Make one-on-one phone calls before the meeting. In many Asian cultures, the default purpose of a meeting is to put a formal stamp on a decision that has been made before the meeting through informal pre-meetings. In a one-on one discussion, you’re more likely to hear the real deal.

Get input in advance of the meeting. Instead of asking people to express their opinions and challenge one another’s ideas in the meeting, ask team members to send all their ideas to a designated third party before the meeting; then organize a list of these ideas to review in the meeting, without stating who made the suggestions.

This way, participants can disagree with any idea during the meeting -- without confronting the person associated with it.

Communicate with diplomacy. One of the simplest ways to improve your global communication skills is to adjust your own language.  As one American who worked in Mexico explained, “I soon learned that if I wanted to encourage team debate, it was important to use phrases like ‘I do not quite understand your point’ and ‘please explain more why you think that’, and to refrain from saying ‘I disagree with that,’ which would shut down the conversation completely.”

Whether we work in Düsseldorf or Dubai, Brasília or Beijing, New York or New Delhi, we are all part of a global network. Today, business success depends on the ability to navigate through the wild variations in the ways people from different societies think, lead, and get things done.

By sidestepping common traps, and learning how to decode the behavior of other cultures along all the scales, we can avoid giving (and taking!) offense and better capitalize on the strengths of increased diversity.  

Author Bio:
Erin Meyer
is a Professor at INSEAD and an expert in cross-cultural management.  She is the author of the new book The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Public Affairs Books, 2014.)