Good managers foresee costs and budget for them, but according to one researcher out of George Mason University, there’s a whole class of costs managers of internationally distributed teams may be ignoring: the price of cultural miscues and miscommunication.
Certainly, you’re not going to hire someone who doesn’t speak the language in which your team does business. But management professor Catherine Cramton says that simply being satisfied that your man or woman on another continent can speak English may lead you to miss subtle but costly communication problems.
Competence in the lingua franca of a team is not the same thing as total comfort, Cramton explained in an interview. “Speaking comfortably in the workplace is a signal of competence, and when you take that away from someone, it’s very emotional.” People react to this discomfort by making small changes that can have a big impact on your team. In her research, Cramton observed this dynamic in action, splintering teams:
When people feel uncomfortable they will try to find a way to get around that. We saw people rather than going to the person who had the best information to solve their problem, going to someone who spoke the language they wanted to speak. We saw employees avoiding meetings or falling silent at meetings, or trying to set up meetings that only included people who spoke the language they were comfortable with. There were a lot of strategies. Once that gets going it really erodes the commitment to bringing people in alignment around a language.
And cultural miscues can cause just as much trouble as linguistic ones, according to Cramton. These misunderstandings are hard to prevent, because “contextual differences are pretty invisible. It’s hard to know what you need to explain about your local constraints that your remote colleagues would not imagine.” Your Greek colleague may think it goes without saying, for example, that the week of Easter is a holiday where everyone is home with their families.
So what can you do to prevent these sorts of problems from undermining your international team? Cramton has four suggestions:
- Site visits or designated experts. The most expensive but most effective solution is to send team members overseas so they can see for themselves how long commutes are, how unreliable the communication equipment is or how abrupt the national style of conversation. Failing having the budget for that, Cramton recommends ensuring at least a few members of the team are experts in their colleagues’ cultural context, so they can act as a “bridge” and explain challenges to those less well-versed in these issues.
- Explicit explanations of context. Cramton uses this strategy herself. “I work with people all over the world and I try to explain my important constraints so that they can get a better picture of the framework in which I’m working. When I’m in doubt of how my remote colleagues are operating, I’m very careful to ask specific questions about their situation.”
- Curiosity before anger. “You don’t know what the important differences are until somebody doesn’t do what you thought they were going to do,” Cramton says, so “it’s important when those problems surface to be curious and ask questions and to assume that there may be things about your colleague’s situation that you don’t know, and need to know. Curiosity is a great rule of thumb.”
- Foreign language learning… for you. If you’re managing a multi-lingual team, Cramton has a surprising suggestion: Try learning a foreign language yourself. It can open the eyes of mono-lingual American managers to the stresses faced by even proficient English speakers, she says, including “how tiring it is to speak in a second language.” In her research, she found that “people could be comfortable speaking in English in the morning when they were fresh or when the topic was very familiar. But when they were tired, or when they were talking about things that had emotional aspects, then it was tough. People who have not had that experience of struggling to find the right word or to catch the meaning, may not really appreciate how tough it is. When you have a little more compassion or understanding, it can be easier to find solutions.”