Having just released the latest edition of my cross cultural communications book, “Communicating Through a Global Lens“, I am dedicating this month’s blog posts to cross cultural communication topics hoping that this brings greater awareness to this very important element of managing global virtual teams everywhere.
WHEN THINGS GET LOST IN TRANSLATION
I know firsthand how English words may have dual meanings, as an incident with a recent consulting engagement indicates. My client was a manufacturing company with several overseas locations. As part of a group email, my office manager and I often sent or requested information about materials that were customized by location. In response to a request she made about the need to print training guides locally, my office manager received the following email: “As you demanded, I am sending information about the printing schedule.” She quickly dashed off her own email which stated, “Just for the record, and for your own communication in English, saying ‘as you demanded’ is not PC! LOL. ‘As per your request’ would sound much better.” She received the following email in response: “What is PC? Are you referring to our computers? ” At that point she phoned our contact and clarified the difference between demand and request; in addition she explained that PC in this instance meant politically correct, not a computer! Fortunately we all had a good laugh and agreed to take extra care with future emails.
Virtual Teams Translate English to English
As we have seen, the mix of cultures can cause various obstacles. According to the 150+ personal interviews I conducted to gather research for my virtual teams book, the most common difficulty pertains to differences in understanding the English language (47%), due to levels of competency, differences in interpretations, literal translation issues, lack of language skills (hired for technical expertise) and accents.
During some of my consulting engagements with global firms throughout the years, I smile when I come across English being translated to English. Being foreign-born, I am always sensitive to how I speak, especially when interacting with people from other cultures. One key question I asked was: how do you get team members from different cultures un-lost in translation, that is how do you get them to understand each other, despite their cultural communication differences?
Below are cross cultural suggestions that are worth repeating.
1. Be Curious
Keep an open mind, sharpen your ‘people antenna’ and ask questions. Noteworthy quote from a senior HR Leader for a Food and Beverage Conglomerate, let’s call her Ingrid: “Know that your culture is not the only one in the world. Be open-minded and willing to learn about the many cultures out there. Try to really understand what someone else’s language means, and trust your colleagues enough to ask questions.” Ingrid described a lost in translation situation with her colleagues in London. During a conference call to discuss downsizing employees she noticed a silence on the phone. “I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ and got no response. They were so quiet, and when I asked again, one of them said, ‘terminated in the UK means dead.’ They used the term leaver instead.” She became curious about how the same words can have such different meanings and decided to create a global glossary. Speaking about her learning, Ingrid said, “It’s a different way of talking. So it’s a matter of feeling comfortable and asking questions from the point of curiosity.” In my practice, I often recommend that a cross cultural virtual team create their own glossary early on in the team’s formation so people are clear on expressions and the meaning of English when translated to English.
2. Adapt to Cross Cultural Differences by Putting it in Writing
Encourage your team to understand and adapt to each other’s personal work styles and preferences. To facilitate this, provide multiple communication channels, clear directions for each phase of a project and check in frequently. One manager noted, put it in writing’ after multiple situations with missed deadlines due to misunderstandings around key deliverables. “I had a team of analysts who fed data to the sales departments for different financial products. I thought I gave clear instructions, but after the third time we missed the mark I had to rethink how I did things before I could put the blame on my analysts who were mostly located overseas.”
Leading virtual teams requires creating new ways to work together, and it starts with ensuring that all team members are aware of cultural differences and prepared to try to understand and adapt. You must adapt the way you manage as well as the way you lead. Divide the work up to create local ownership and cross cultural collaboration. Also paramount is providing multiple communication channels, conducting frequent progress checks and translating complex directions. One Financial Services manager I interviewed learned to ‘put it in writing!’ For many cultures it is better to follow-up with the written word to confirm the verbal. Many managers tell me that they follow-up their virtual meetings with written summaries to make sure that there is clarity. Some cultures (many Asian cultures) are more structured and respond to ‘command and control – ‘tell me how to do it and I will wait for your direction’ approach while other cultures (more in the US) are more entrepreneurial and might ‘go ahead and do it and get sloppy’ as one virtual manager at a technology company pointed out. He follows up all meetings with copious notes and written summaries afterwards so his virtual members (particularly the ones in China) can read and understand what he expects at their own leisure/on their own time.
Stay tuned to next week’s blog post where I’ll share 2 more strategies for getting get “UN-Lost in Translation”. Feel free to share my blog posts as well as articles, videos and talks that can help to raise cross-cultural awareness in workplaces everywhere!