Clarity in International Team Communication
Getting your point across to your team can be quite a challenge. Your message has to have the right amount of detail without overwhelming your listener. You have to know what your teammates know and what they need to know. Assuming you can get the right message out, it can still get buried underneath the everyday noise and distractions of work life. Luckily, organizations tend to rely on best practices, which gives the team a common frame of reference and familiar expectations regarding what might come next.
But the best practices we rely on are not universal truths. They greatly differ depending on your corner of the globe. And let’s face it, our corners have gotten fairly close together. We rub elbows with others around the world more than most of us dreamed we would and teamwork has gone global.
Communication is much more challenging when you remove the common framework of best practices from the equation – and misunderstandings can multiply. Sometimes, even determining whether you’ve received a “yes” or “no” answer can take quite a bit of detective work.
But You Said…
To start, “yes” may not be as definitive an answer around the world as we have grown to expect. In the United States, when you say yes, it means we have a deal. A deal’s a deal. However, in other parts of the world, the word “yes” is more like a placeholder. It may signify interest, but further discussions need to occur. The deal isn’t final. Yet, just as “yes” may signal the beginning of a dialogue in some cases, in other cases, “yes” may also be used to politely close the matter – so it is not uncommon to find discrepancies between what you hear a person agree to and what actually gets done.
In the U.S., there may be no more definitive word than “no.” End of discussion. Off the table. As hard as it is for some of us to say no, it is much more difficult for people from other cultures to use the word. The word disrupts harmony and damages reputations, doing no one any good. Your international teammates will signal their disagreement differently, maybe with “this would be difficult” or “perhaps” but it’ll be up to you to dial in your “yes or no” radar.
Starting to feel like you need a decoder ring? Here are some tips to build your own.
Americans tend to arrive at decisions quickly. We define the problem, discuss alternatives, determine the solution, and roll out. This is not something you should aim for when working in an international team. If you’re rushing out the door, chances are you’re missing important signals from your teammates. Patience is the name of the game.
Start listening to how things are said, not just what is said. If the response is brief and simply polite, the “yes” that you are looking for may not actually be there. Spend some time to assess whether or not you’ve actually come to an agreement. Compare takeaways. Before you walk out the door, ask the other person for their understanding of the conversation and the next steps. A real “yes” tends to align with actionable steps or at least a large amount of overlap in understanding. A vague reply hints we may be looking at something less than “yes”. But is it a “no”? That can be equally confusing.
In some cultures people avoid confrontation to the best of their ability. Conflicts result in lost face and damaged reputations. The word “no” is so overt in some cultures that the use of it is distasteful.
Rather than telling you “no,” you may hear more indirect answers such as “we are evaluating the situation and will be back with you” or “there was a budget problem so things are delayed.” If you press the issue the conversation may become strained, the topic changed or untruths told.
When you see these kinds of responses, the person is telling you “no,” and they really hope that you pick up on the signal because even being that direct may be making them uncomfortable. Business on the international scale takes a tremendous amount of skillful coordination to efficiently utilize human capital. We begin to build this with effective communication, the foundation of which we have discussed here.
Richard Griffith, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Institute for Cross Cultural Management at Florida Institute of Technology. He is the editor of the books The Age of Internationalization: Internationalizing the Organizational Psychology Curriculum and Leading Global Work Teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (321) 674-8104.