How to Communicate With a Global Workforce Do you know what they say when you assume? Companies will only get more global as communication across the world becomes easier. We must ensure that cultural differences are not assumed but understood.
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I recently rolled out some updates to our executive benefits for our leadership team from different countries. I started by explaining why the change was happening and provided some context before getting to the changes, figuring people might appreciate the rationale behind the changes. Trying to explain the "why" after the announcement might sound like a bunch of excuses, and I assumed people would stop listening by then because they would be stuck on the "what."
My assumptions were assumed wrong. By the end of my spiel, a few of our executives were agitated. They distrusted my long explanation leading up to the change because they were convinced I was hiding something. In their mind, they stopped listening during the "why" because they thought the "what" to come would be when the other shoe dropped.
As companies increasingly expand globally and teams grow more diverse, things can get incredibly lost in translation. Everyone knows what happens when we assume: it can get people into trouble. People communicate differently between cultures, nationalities, personality types and even various organizations. Global teammates can engage in more productive communication by encouraging mindfulness around those differences.
There is no universal communication style
Let's stop assuming that the way we communicate is any baseline. Even families share differently. The more distant the regions, countries or organizations, the greater the risk that those differences can cause misunderstandings and potentially harm working relationships. Working in a flat organization, I have grown used to having the ability to decide, knowing my team has my back. In hierarchical companies, the frustration of waiting for a partner to check with someone else before every decision can strain a working relationship.
Company employees working in various parts of the world will have different expectations and specific industries can have unspoken rules. Our company fosters a learning environment, so when we acquired a company in London recently and went to help with the integration, we brought our team along for the experience. Our British counterparts, however, were uncomfortable, wondering why so many "extra" people were in the room, seemingly not adding any value. Even when the company's primary language is English, numerous factors can come into play and present barriers to effective communication.
Learn what works rather than using stereotypes
To figure out what works for someone's communication style, be open to learning from them directly as individuals, rather than assuming what will work based on the assumptions of another country. Within each culture, several factors can influence how people communicate. Think about how people in New York and Texas communicate, or even people in different parts of a single state. While culture may inspire certain norms in how people communicate, we should never assume someone from a particular country automatically falls under those stereotypes.
The things we say or do can have very different meanings between cultures, but how a person internalizes those differences and decides to communicate those feelings can vary between individuals. Americans are more strict about attending meetings on time, while other countries see time as more fluid and won't think twice about joining an appointment 10 minutes later. Some people could get frustrated at that behavior and choose to take it as a personal affront, or we could learn to adapt and acknowledge that in some cultures, our behavior is not considered rude and, instead, accept our communication differences.
Find a training method that works for your company
In a global company with remote teams, there are no more organic opportunities for people to acknowledge communication differences, so we must be more deliberate about pointing them out. Unless people experience other environments that allow them to realize and appreciate communication differences, they may never recognize them alone. Instead of leaning on one person or team to advise on all the communication differences that might exist among a global team, arm every person in the company with that ability.
Explain how people communicate differently and help people understand that we all bring our biases. Teach employees what it means to work in an inclusive culture. At our company, we use the book The Culture Map by Eric Meyer as a shared resource to have that conversation as it acts as a safety net, to open all our minds to our similarities and our differences. We have built workshops around the book and are incorporating it into our onboarding curriculum so we can all learn from one another and appreciate the similarities and differences of different cultures.
This book may not be the right solution for every company, but leaders with remote teams expanding across increasingly large geographies should look into tools to achieve more cohesive communication. Many workplaces use personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram or the Clifton Strengths Finder to better understand individual communication styles. Whatever the approach, the most crucial step is to use that information to adapt our communication styles in different settings and be respectful to others regardless of our differences.
As we work with more global teams, we must learn how to check our biases — professionally, personally and culturally — from getting in our way. Others may not share our views, and not everyone will fall into the boxes of stereotyped assumptions. Team leaders should want to learn more about the differences in how their team members communicate and encourage others to be aware and adapt to different settings. When they do, they end up with better people, less friction and ultimately more robust business strategies.