Bridging Cultural Boundaries in Global Teams
By Nancy Settle-Murphy

Posted September 15, 2011


In a recent post, I talked about the importance of helping your cross cultural teams develop cultural literacy, by which I mean an understanding of and sensitivity to values and beliefs that lie beneath the surface differences of language, cuisine and style.

Whether members of a cross-cultural team work in the same location or a couple of time zones away, everyone needs to learn how to navigate cultural differences successfully. In the absence of visual cues, these differences become much more challenging to interpret and address.

Here are some things to think about when you plan for team communication.

  1. Choose your words carefully. Use words that are simple, clear and direct. Avoid double negatives, which can be especially confusing to an international audience. If you think that your company’s corporate platitudes are devoid of meaning, imagine the confusion for people who have to translate this jargon! Steer clear of idioms, allegories and acronyms.
  2. Push for a face-to-face meeting if there’s a lot on the line. Since many of us derive about 60-80% of our information from the context in which information is presented, interacting with others in a face-to-face setting for just one day can teach us more about each other than sitting through a month’s worth of con calls. Not only does this give participants a chance to listen and observe, but in meeting face-to-face, people tend to create trusting relationships far faster, which will make bridging the cultural gaps easier later on. If face-to-face is not possible, try using videoconferencing for at least the first few meetings, so that people can become acquainted.
  3. Assume “overseas English” when planning for team communications. Just because English is regarded by many to be the universal language of business, many of us assume that everyone can comprehend it equally. Make sure to build in extra time—up to 50% more—for interactive conversations when working with non-native English speakers. Allow time for silent pauses so people can translate from English to their language and back to English before responding. Test for comprehension periodically by paraphrasing, rather than by asking people if they understood. Many may prefer to suffer in silence rather than admit that they had no clue what you just said.
  4. Putting it in writing. Many people learn best by listening, and others prefer to see words before the meaning can be absorbed. When working with a team of people who do not have the same mastery of English, make sure to provide participants with at least some written documentation at least a day or two in advance. For example, if the team needs to make an important decision, document the criteria and the pros and cons in writing, rather than just talking it through. This way, everyone will have a chance to review needed information at his or her own pace, and can be better prepared to engage in a productive conversation.
  5. Ask team members off-line how you can do better. Reach out to team members by picking up the phone, versus emailing. Many may be reluctant to put their real feelings in writing, and may not know what you’re really asking, or why. Be specific. For example, ask whether your proposal could have been made clearer. Or probe to determine why others on the call might have remained silent when all were asked to make a decision. Ask if you can come back to this person to seek candid feedback in the future. Chances are, this person will be delighted to act as “culture coach,” especially if in so doing, the team can be more effective.

When it comes to bridging cultural boundaries, planning for complexity reaps rich rewards.

Posted by Nancy Settle-Murphy