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Effective Cross Cultural Communication in the Workplace: Tips for Success

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Brian McDermott

Brian McDermott

Cross Cultural Expert

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Effective Cross Cultural Communication in the Workplace: Tips for Success

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Working across cultures is usually more interesting, if not always more enjoyable, than if we were just doing business with our own nationality. It is most likely that many of “the ways we like to do business” are quite familiar among our cross-cultural colleagues and clients.

Conversely, there are several extremely important areas of interaction between culturally diverse people which can probably never be standardized. And these are the areas which provide major surprises – and costly pitfalls. How can we anticipate these differences and work effectively?

The essence of workplace productivity is communication. No matter how well we think we understand one another, communication is difficult. How often do we hear statements like “He doesn’t get it!” or “She didn’t hear what I was saying.” Communication is at the heart of many of the issues we face when working across cultures.

I recently delivered a coaching session for a German CEO overseeing Asia for a German car manufacturer. He was having some challenges communicating with his Asian colleagues.

He started by saying, “Brian, I have this amazing diverse team of managers spread across Asia. But sometimes when communicating I am not sure if they misunderstand me or they are just giving me resistance.”

“Why do you say that?” I asked.

“A perfect example just happened last week. I asked my Malaysian manager if he could get his report to me by Thursday.” He responded clearly, ‘Yes, I will try.’

“By the end of the day on Thursday I had no report. I sent over an email to him reminding him about the report and I received no response. When I still had not received the report by Friday morning I picked up the phone and gave him a call. He said he would send it as soon as possible but when it had not arrived by noon I was quite upset.”

I replied, “When doing business across cultures, you may believe you are communicating clearly, but you are probably headed for big trouble. Most executives claim they try to adjust their English language in a foreign business situation. The facts show that there are still problems.

After one recentglobal management meeting, we asked a senior Chinese executive how much he got from the discussion. He said, “Not more than 50 percent.”

“How our message is interpreted and understood also depends greatly on the cultural context in which it is received and the methods we use to convey our communication (email, face-to-face, teleconference etc ). In this case, when your Malaysian colleague said, ‘I will try,’ what he was really saying was, ‘No chance’, I said.

“Well, how the heck am I supposed to know if ‘Yes’ means ‘Yes’ or ‘No chance.’?” the German manager responded.

“The way cultures communicate varies greatly and they are either high-context or low-context communicators. In a high-context culture like Malaysia – and most of Asia – the message is indirect and it is your job to figure out what they are trying to tell you. A large part of the meaning of an Asian’s communication is coded in their non-verbal cues, eye contact, silence etc and they leave it up to you to read-between-the-lines. In the case of your Malaysian manager, from his perspective, he was quite clear that he could not meet your deadline.

Coming from Germany, where direct communication is valued and rewarded, you ‘say what you mean and mean what you say’. Since precision and quality are highly regarded in Germany it makes sense that your culture wants to avoid any misunderstandings. But this often comes across as confrontational, blunt and even crude to most Asians.”

Here are 10 tips to help you communicate more effectively across cultures in the workplace:

  1. Take the time to check whether you are actually understood.
  2. Avoid using slang.
  3. Ask questions when you do not understand – clarify.
  4. Use short sentences (KISS – keep it short and simple)
  5. Provide periodic summaries of the discussion so far.
  6. Use signposting – make it clear when you are changing topics.
  7. Do not rush; allow time for absorption and reflection.
  8. Pay attention to what is said rather than accent or style.
  9. Ask open-ended questions which allow a shared context to be developed.
  10. Give consideration to what is not said.

By following these tips you can avoid the key communication challenges that impede you and your team from reaching your goals.

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