I very much encourage you to use the opportunity to observe various interactions between people of different backgrounds. This can be so revealing in terms of what they value, what’s important for them and how that impacts their communication style.
In this article, we are going to focus on cultural differences, but you can observe a multitude of things also when listening to the conversations between different generations or sub-groups. We will look at one case of a mixed working team where on the surface everything seemed ok, but really what was lacking is building deeper trusting working relationships.
I was once working in a team with two British and two German colleagues. They have all traveled a lot with work during their careers already, but have generally only lived in their home countries.
We got together to agree on a timeline as well as ensure that we have enough resources to successfully run the recruiting process in the two offices – in England and in Germany – where we both needed help from another team at the same time. It was all generally going well at the beginning. After all, we all wanted to make this happen! It was until we started going into more specifics though. At the beginning, when it was more of a high-level discussion everyone seemed to be aligned. When we started going through the action points, the challenges began.
The two German colleagues were proposing changes to the process that didn’t quite work for our English office. This was due to other events that were happening at the same time in the UK as well as the fact that it required a lot of effort on their side to implement something completely new (they wanted to tweak the process a little bit and try it out, rather than change it completely all at once).
The arguments given by the English colleagues were along the lines of:
– “I’m not quite sure if we’re on the same page. I was thinking about something slightly less drastic. I wonder if there’s a world where we are all happy and don’t need to make too many sacrifices.”
– “Maybe we could take some time to think about what you’ve shared and catch up again early next week?”
– “I’m not entirely convinced… Would you mind explaining how this currently works between your office and this team?”
The arguments given by the German colleagues went something like:
– “I don’t agree. We shouldn’t postpone this discussion. Let’s discuss in more detail now that we are all on the call anyway.”
– “This has worked for us very well so far and we would like to stick to it. I understand that it’s not the best solution for you guys. What are the things that we can flex to accommodate both our needs?”
– “Let me tell you how we currently work with them and we can then discuss which parts, if any, you can implement in your office to make this happen.”
After a lively discussion, there were some action points created. When we hang up however, the English colleagues started commenting on how rude the German colleagues were on that call and how they don’t like working with them. They were annoyed that Germans are pushing their solutions and don’t leave any space for discussion. I can only imagine the German team commenting on the indirectness of the English colleagues! 🙂
As much as we managed to find some solution that was acceptable by both locations, this came at a price of a big frustration. It did not help us build a better relationship between the two teams either. It was very much a transactional conversation rather than building a true rapport.
Time to put our cultural lens on!
Where did the frustration come from?
You might have already seen the description of various dimensions of the Culture Map model by Erin Meyer. If you haven’t – start with the Communicating and Disagreeing scales as this will give you a good base for understanding the above example.
We know from various researches that the dimensions are not ideal and although not a 100% correct way of describing the reality, they do provide a good overview of an average representative of a given culture. They can especially be helpful when looking at interactions between people who are not third culture kids and have not had many experiences of living abroad for longer periods of time. This is because it means they have likely mostly been encountering people from similar cultural backgrounds and did not need to adapt their core values, beliefs or behaviours significantly. The deep influence of other cultures on them was minimal.
So, where did the frustration of the English colleagues come from in the above example?
When you look at the position of the German and an English on the Disagreeing scale (with a spectrum from Confrontational to Avoids confrontation), you will see that the Germans are generally much closer to the Confrontational end than the English. It’s more common and more accepted to openly express disagreement in a direct way and this does not usually mean anything personal, but rather simply means challenging a given idea.
In addition to this, you will see that on the Communicating scale the Germans also are on the far left end with the preference for Low-context, direct communication style, while the English are somewhat in the middle.
What’s important though is not where they are on the scale, but rather where they are in relation to each other. In both cases, the gap between the average preferences of the German and the English is big.
It seems that in the above example, the arguments given by the German colleagues sounded very confrontational for the English colleagues. The way they expressed their disagreement was simply very direct. While the Germans could say “I don’t agree, we shouldn’t do this that way”, the English were expecting something more like “I’m not convinced, not quite sure if we’re on the same page”.
The language used by the British can often be very indirect and may be misinterpreted by people coming from a more direct cultural background. When the English person said “I’m not quite convinced”, the German person might not have classified this as a disagreement, but rather an encouragement to continue with their concrete arguments.
How can they approach this challenge to improve their collaboration?
It clearly is a challenge when there is such a difference in the way people express their disagreement. One side might end up being “the rude one” while the other “completely indecisive”.
After looking at the situation through the cultural lens, there is a number of things that those team members might do when working with each other in the future. The understanding of each others’ approaches can transform the transactional approach into a more trusting relationship. Both British and German cultures are closer to the task-based trust building side on the Trusting scale, and it might seem that as long as the task is done it’s all fine. However, in fact if the whole process of doing the task is frustrating , this would simply not work and the trust will be decreasing.
Tips for the British team members:
- They can try to use less qualifiers (eg. like, quite, slightly, kind of) when putting forward their opinions and ideas. This will make them sound more direct and decisive.
- Propose collating ideas from everybody before the meeting and come up with an agenda or voting system that will enable everyone to express their arguments in an equal manner.
Tips for the German team members:
- Try to be more attentive to the language the British colleagues use and filter through the qualifiers if they are being used. That way they might more easily pick up on the communicates that signify disagreement and invite for further discussion.
- Be less directive and try asking for others’ perspectives before presenting yours.