My work history has helped me become conditioned to working with cultures outside of the U.S. I have spent most of my career working for foreign owned MNEs, so adapting to different cultures has been part of my world. I really thought that my limited exposure to other cultures was enough to dive head first into the world of global leadership by taking on a role to charter a new industrial robotics team for my employer. My thought was that it would be a walk in the park, because I had been working for this company for over twenty years. Many of my colleagues were from Europe and South America so I thought I had a good head start on communicating. Well, I was wrong.
Lesson 4 teaches us that intercultural communications “is a process whereby individuals from different cultural backgrounds attempt to share meanings.”(Moran, Abramson, & Moran, 2014, p.40). Sounds simple enough on the surface to me. I mean, because I have been sharing meanings all my life and so have my colleagues. We have been communicating over the years in meetings, emails, and Skype. I was positive that my communication skills, and the skills of my colleagues, were spot on. With that confidence, we were ready to take things to the next level and build a global engineering network to share our skills and experiences across our many different manufacturing facilities.
The Team charter members were from the U.S.A., Sweden, France, Thailand, and Brazil. Due to the diversity of our business, we have selected our corporate language as English. As found in our assigned text, English has become the language of commerce around the world. (Moran, Abramson, & Moran, 2014, p.53). Lucky for me, because that is the only language I speak. However, once we had our kickoff meeting, I quickly realized that my English, and the English of many of my colleagues, are very different. When we began meeting on a regular basis, I noticed how we all seemed to agree with everything. I first thought, wow, this is a breeze. These engineers are much easier to get along with than any group I had ever worked with. After my first few months of leading our communication meetings, I proposed that we should have a face to face workshop. So, we selected a location and converged on a hotel lobby to finally shake hands and have a drink together. Then reality smacked me in the face. Most of our communications were ineffective due to the different levels of interpretation of the English language. We were struggling to hold a conversation and be inclusive to the team. I felt real bad, because I was sure we were making great progress as a team. On the other hand, finally knowing about this gap in our communications gave us something to work on together.
For the past two years, we have been working together to improve how we communicate. First was to figure out how to quit agreeing on everything. I felt real bad for my team members that felt as though they just needed to agree with anything because their English wasn’t good enough to argue a point. This has been our focus, and we brainstormed on how to improve our situation. The output was for us to make sure everyone was comfortable. The easiest way to do that was to remove the pressures of time, and we extended our meeting times by double. Then we decided to have everyone, especially me, to slow down and speak very direct and concise. We also discussed the need prepare your comments to be rephrased a couple of times to make sure everyone understands your point. Agendas were mandated to be sent out two days before each meeting to enable those interested in the topic to brush up on their notes and be ready to communicate their position. Finally, we decided that we couldn’t move from a topic until everyone agreed that they fully understood the outcome of the discussion. This way of working has been very hard on each of our patience, but it is working. You may ask, how I know we are communicating effectively. Because we are finally beginning to disagree, argue, and debate many tough engineering topics during our meetings. A team that is arguing means they are engaged in the work. That is music to my ears!
Moran, Ph.D., R. T., Abramson, Ph.D., N. R., & Moran, MA, S. V. (2014). Managing Cultural Differences, 9thEdition. Routledge.