In the workplace you often need clear answers and commitment from your team. How do you get these?
Why is this such a challenge?
When “Yes Means “No”
The CEO of a German car manufacturer asked his Malaysian manager if he could deliver a report by Thursday. The manager responded: “Yes, I will try.”
By the end of Thursday, there was no report. The CEO sent a reminder email, but there was no response.
Friday morning, the CEO called the manager. “You’ll have it as soon as possible,” the manager promised. Friday at noon, the CEO was angry: he still had no report from the manager.
Did the manager misunderstand or was he resisting direction from his superior?
Brian McDermott, a cross cultural consultant explains: when the manager said, “I will try,” he was really saying, “no chance”.
In some cultures, it is simply taboo to say “no” to a request. As this manager did, people from certain cultures often use coded speech to soften their conversation and avoid open conflict. No doubt the manager felt he clearly said he could not meet the deadline.
The CEO’s culture, however, values direct, open, frank communication to avoid misunderstandings. “Why couldn’t the manager be more clear?” the CEO wondered.
McDermott points out that the CEO’s direct approach will often appear blunt, confrontational, even crude to those from conflict-avoidance cultures.
Being Understood Takes Time
How can you avoid such frustrations, get clear answers and also commitment?
One key is taking the time to check and see if others really understand you.
For example, you ask whether a deadline can be met. Your teammate says yes, but then describes other items in their schedule. Will you assume the work will be done on time, or will you stop and ask questions? When does your teammate think they could realistically complete the work?
People from the open, direct camp would often assume the “yes” response means there is nothing else to discuss.
Take the time to find out if someone may not understand. This can often save valuable time, money and even your own reputation.
Respect Is Key to Commitment and Clarity
Respect is another key to the rapport needed for clear answers and commitment, according to Gayle Cotton, author of “Say Anything to Anyone Anywhere”.
Western culture teaches business leaders to command respect from others.
You need to do the opposite to succeed, says Donnie Ebenstein, a negotiation consultant for various world governments.
Instead of just commanding respect, give respect to others. Be humble.
Ebenstein continues: Americans often expect others to speak English. Instead, why not express appreciation for others’ efforts to speak English? For example, “I’m glad this meeting is in English. This makes it easier for me.”
Ebenstein also gives this example: “As an American, I’m not familiar with all the ways things are done here. I will make mistakes. I apologize in advance. Please let me know when I do, so we can talk about it.”
Perhaps this is not your style to make statements like this. Yet this is the approach that creates the influence and rapport that Ebenstein and Cotton emphasize.
Are You a Peach or a Coconut?
Another key to getting commitment is realizing how your teammates build relationships.
Erin Meyer, a professor specializing in cross-cultural business management, describes cultures as either peaches or coconuts.
In peach cultures, people are usually friendly or “soft” with those they have just met. They smile often. They use first names. They share information and ask personal questions of new acquaintances.
However, you may suddenly find the hard pit of the peach. They protect their real self. Perhaps you find the relationship was not as deep as you thought it was.
In coconut cultures, people are initially more guarded. They may not smile or offer personal details. Over time, as they get to know you, they become warmer and respect you more. While slower to build, these relationships are usually stronger.
Coconuts often question motives of the seemingly over-friendly peaches. Peaches frequently interpret the apparent initial coldness of coconuts as either pride or even hostility.
Are you a coconut or a peach? What about your team members? Meyer emphasizes being mindful of your own approach as well as your teammates as you work to build rapport and commitment.
Use Cross Cultural Psychology to Your Advantage
Giving respect to others is the fastest way to build rapport and commitment. Invite others to give feedback. Express appreciation. Apologize when appropriate.
Avoid misunderstandings by looking at how your people build relationships. Are they initially friendly or guarded? How can you match their approach to maximize trust?
Above all, realize that in a multi-cultural environment, commitment and understanding take time. Take the needed time.
Make it clear when you transition from one point to another. Allow time for others to absorb and reflect on key points. Summarize your points and ask questions. Repeat the thoughts of others for clear understanding.
Businesses are increasingly looking for leaders that know how to apply these principles. Practice them until they become habit.
Sana Reynolds offers cross cultural communication courses and workshops for those wishing to succeed in business conversations.