Building High-Performing Cross-Cultural Teams


Everything we do, from the way in which we write our emails, to the method in which we provide negative feedback and evaluate performance, governs the performance of our teams. And understanding how culture impacts our efficacy as a team can drastically improve our day-to-day collaboration. In this session you'll learn: How different cultures communicate, How different cultures evaluate performance and give constructive criticism, How different cultures make decisions, How different cultures trust, How different cultures perceive time.



Hey, everyone. I know I'm keeping you from a fun after party, so let's just go for it, huh? So in February of 2018, I moved from Austin, Texas to Carlsroad, Germany to begin a new life as a software engineer at LogMeIn. I'd worked with people from other cultures before moving abroad, but I was really unprepared to join a team with seven nationalities. Then in summer of 2020, I moved to Stockholm, Sweden to join Spotify. And now I get to work on a team with ten nationalities. So it's even more important that I'm able to communicate and collaborate effectively. And this is because everything that we do, from the way that we write our emails to the way that we give someone negative feedback, governs the performance of our teams. So understanding how culture impacts our success as a team can drastically improve our day-to-day collaboration. So today I'm going to share with you two key areas with which we can decode how different cultures communicate and collaborate to enhance your cross-cultural collaboration. So aside from my own experiences working and living abroad, this talk was inspired by one of my favorite books, which is The Culture Map by Erin Meyer. And this book decodes how different cultures communicate, lead, and even experience time. So first we'll examine how different cultures communicate and how we can improve our communication on a cross-cultural team. And second, we'll take a look at how different cultures evaluate performance and give negative feedback. There are several other scales in the culture map that Erin Meyer discusses, but today we're just going to focus on these two. So before we jump in, Ellie did a really great job. My name is Emma Bostian. I am an engineering manager at Spotify in Stockholm. I'm also a new mom, so if you hear a baby crying, that's my kid. She's also the reason I look really tired today. But all jokes aside, raising a bicultural baby has really motivated me to obtain a deeper understanding of cultural nuances. And one might argue that speaking about culture causes us to stereotype people, as opposed to evaluating each person as a distinct individual. And while it's really important that we recognize everyone's individuality, it would be a little bit naive to completely disregard culture altogether. Because when we don't consider the impact a culture has had on someone and the way that they communicate, we falsely view every interaction with someone through our own cultural lens. So let's jump in. Let's talk about communication. So as a U.S. American, when I think what good communication means, I think about someone who is explicit, they express their thoughts very clearly and simply, and kind of redundantly, they ensure everyone's on the same page multiple times. And this is what we call low-context communication. So the messages are clearly expressed and they're taken at face value. But not all cultures view these characteristics as good communication. In contrast, many Asian cultures, such as India, China, and Japan, and Indonesia, they value communicators who are implicit. And this requires the listener to actually read between the lines. So this is known as high-context communication. The messages are implied, but they're not spoken explicitly. So this is a scale from the culture map, and it's going to plot cultures along a communication scale. So on the left side, we have the low-context communication cultures, and the right, we've got high-context communication cultures. But an important note about these scales is that the position of a culture on this scale, the absolute position, it's not important. What's important is the relative positioning to your culture that's going to indicate how you perceive someone's communication style. So as an example, the US and the UK are both considered low-context cultures. But people from the UK fall towards the right side of US Americans. And as a result, a US American might find their British colleague to be a little bit vague and not super transparent when they're communicating. But someone from Brazil would view people from both the UK and the US as being overly explicit and low-context. So it's relative position, not absolute position, that's going to indicate how you perceive other cultures' communication style. In fact, the United States is the lowest-context culture in the world, and all Anglo-Saxon cultures fall on the left-hand side of the scale. Countries speaking Romance languages, including many countries in Europe, like Italy, Spain, France, as well as some Latin American countries, like Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, fall to the middle right of the scale. And many African and Asian countries fall completely to the right, as they're high-context communicators. And it's important to note that what you consider good communication isn't necessarily what another culture considers good communication. So if someone from a low-context culture values explicit communication through verbal and written validation, they might perceive a colleague from a higher-context culture to be a bad communicator. And this variation in communication styles can be traced back to the history of a culture. So high-context cultures, such as China and India, typically have a long shared history, and they're focused more on relationship-oriented societies. So you've got traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. In contrast, the United States is only a few hundred years old, and has been impacted by a multitude of immigrants from all over the world, having different shared histories and different languages. So to communicate effectively, US Americans have to be as explicit as possible. And the language of a culture often reflects its communication style. So in the US, we speak English primarily, and the US is a low-context culture. They're known for being very explicit. And there are over 500,000 words in the English language. In contrast, France, a more high-context culture, speaks a language of only 135,000 words. And this can illustrate how higher-context cultures are going to use less words to convey meaning, because they have to read between the lines to infer what's meant. Think about two people who have been together for over 50 years. They can probably communicate seamlessly without many words. And in contrast, two people who have only been together for a year or less, they need to be a little bit more explicit in their communication. And again, while you may be considered a great communicator in your home culture, it doesn't necessarily translate onto a multicultural team. So when you're working with people from higher-context cultures, it's really important to listen, because communication is not solely about speaking. It's also about listening. So listen to the meaning behind what is said, rather than the literal message. And be mindful of the fact that people communicate the way that they're used to. So instead of jumping to the conclusion that an employee or a colleague is a bad communicator, try to recognize that they're most likely communicating the way that they always have been. Now you might assume that the most miscommunications happen between someone from a low-context culture and someone from a high-context culture. But that's not actually true. Miscommunications happen most often between two people from two high-context cultures. This is because high-context communication works seamlessly between members of the same culture. But it begins to break down when you have two people coming from two different high-context cultures, like someone from Brazil communicating with someone from China. Now imagine we had two couples who'd each been together for 50 years, and you take one person from each pair and you put them together. You wouldn't expect them to be able to communicate as effectively as they do with their partners. So this is why two high-context cultures working on the same team often have miscommunications. So as a result, multicultural teams need low-context processes to ensure that all team members are in alignment. So be explicit in your communication and reinforce key takeaways. Let's move on to the second scale, evaluating someone's performance. While every culture believes in constructive criticism, it's important to note that what's viewed as constructive changes culture to culture. And there are two types of methods for giving feedback. In direct feedback cultures, the feedback is provided at face value. It's blunt, it's honest, it typically speaks for itself. Now when you're receiving feedback from someone who comes from a direct feedback culture, you'll notice that they might use a lot of upgrader words or words that come before the negative feedback to kind of enhance its strength. So words like absolutely, totally, strongly. Now let me tell you, I loved living in Germany, but I must admit the first time I received constructive criticism from one of my German colleagues, I cried and nearly moved back to the United States. But in all seriousness, I had a lot of culture shock when I moved abroad because Germany is a negative feedback culture, a direct negative feedback culture. And the US is much less direct. You might have heard of that compliment sandwich. Many people don't love that. This caused some culture clashes with my team members and I. In indirect negative feedback cultures, the feedback is provided much more subtly. The negative message is typically wrapped inside of a positive message to soften that blow. So that's that compliment sandwich. Like, oh, this presentation was great, I really liked your slide themes. Really great feedback. Like you're talking about the presentation aesthetics here. Next time, maybe it could have been a little bit slower. But overall, great job. That's that compliment sandwich that US Americans love. Yeah, it's confusing for many people, right? And when receiving feedback from someone from an indirect feedback culture, you might notice they use downgrader words. So words that come before this negative feedback to soften the blow. So kind of, sort of, a little bit, slightly. This is a fun guide. It's called the Anglo-Dutch Translation Guide. And if you haven't seen it, it's essentially comparing what a British colleague might say, what the British mean, and what the Dutch colleague understands. So with all due respect, the Dutch person's thinking, oh, they're listening to me. This is great. And the British colleague's sitting there thinking, oh, I think you're wrong. And if a British colleague says, oh, that's very interesting, the Dutch colleague thinks, wow, they're really impressed. And the British colleague's sitting there like, I don't like it. So this is just one adorable little example of cultural mishaps that can happen when you don't recognize how other cultures communicate. So this is another chart from the culture map. We've got the direct negative feedback cultures on the left and indirect on the right. So indirect feedback cultures, or I'm sorry, direct feedback cultures like Germany, France, Netherlands, give feedback pretty bluntly. And you typically state what you mean without any ambiguity. The US, the UK, and Canada fall to the middle right of the scale. You kind of get that compliment sandwich. You balance negative feedback with positive feedback. And then on the right side, we have indirect negative feedback cultures like Japan, Korea, and Thailand. And things are going to start getting really interesting when we start examining how different cultures communicate with how they provide feedback. So now we can take those and we can map each culture, hey, Freya, into a quadrant of the communication feedback graph. So let's take a look at each of these a little bit more. So cultures that are low context and provide direct feedback, like Germany or Denmark, may appear blunt, offensive, and sometimes rude to Benihana, who's listening. But receiving feedback from these cultures is really straightforward because they value honesty and transparency. And even though these cultures value honesty and transparency, it's super important not to attempt the same method of communication or feedback because people in these cultures have long understood the subtle differences between what's appropriate and what's inappropriate. So if you don't understand these nuances, it's pretty easy to offend someone from these cultures. Cultures that are high context and provide direct negative feedback, like France, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Israel, speak a little bit more ambiguous language but still provide direct negative feedback. Now this is interesting because as a high context culture, they're taught to read the air. So they interpret what is meant when communicating but not what's said. But regarding feedback, they're much more direct. Cultures that are low context and provide indirect feedback, like the US, Canada, and the UK, are a little bit weird. So how often have you been given constructive criticism by a US-American colleague who started off with one or two positive things, slipped a negative comment, and then finished with a compliment, right? That compliment sandwich. It's confusing to many other cultures. And have you ever heard a US-American colleague start a meeting with, I'm thrilled to be here with you today? Like honestly, only a US-American would begin a meeting this way. You would be thrilled if you got an all expenses paid vacation or you won the lottery. But are you really thrilled to be doing quarterly planning in Jura? So over-exaggerating is really confusing for people from other cultures who are attempting to understand what's actually excellent, what is actually amazing, but what's just good or nice. So if you want to work more effectively with someone from a culture in this quadrant, be explicit with your feedback, but just take considerations to wrap the meaning of your message maybe a little bit softer. And lastly, when dealing with high context in direct feedback cultures like Brazil, China, or Japan, be sure to provide negative feedback in private. You should never give feedback to an individual in front of a group. And there are a few ways to provide negative feedback to people from these cultures. So first, you can give feedback slowly and over a period of time. So it's customary to make gradual references to changes that may be happening. And secondly, you should say the good and omit the bad. Let's take a look at an example. Suppose that your Japanese colleague sends you a 20-page presentation to review. And most of the slides look really wonderful, but the last five look a little bit sloppy. So you can tell them, hey, the first 15 slides look really great. You don't need to tell them that the last five slides look a little bit sloppy. By omitting praise for the entirety of that slide deck, your colleague is able to read the air and comprehend that the last five slides need to be revisited. There's no need to be direct and explicit with the negative feedback, and everyone walks away with a shared understanding. So understanding how different cultures evaluate performance and give negative feedback can positively impact your efficacy as a team. Today we've taken a look at two of the eight aspects of the culture map. So we've talked about communicating, and we've talked about giving feedback or evaluating. Now once we understand the remaining aspects, which are persuading, leading, deciding, trusting, disagreeing and scheduling, we can begin to plot different cultures on the map to indicate where potential conflicts may arise. So you can plot each culture along the eight scales and draw a connecting line that represents the culture's overall pattern. So where two cultures lie really closely together, they coincide within that paradigm. And where they diverge can be a source of frustration, and additional steps may be necessary to facilitate collaboration. So you can see here persuading between Germany and China. China has applications first persuading, and Germany used principles first. That could be a source of contention between two team members. But as humans, we're all motivated by the same fundamental needs, but every individual is different. So you should always begin a new relationship with someone from a different culture as a chance to understand their unique aspects. The culture that we're raised in does have implications on how we view the world. People develop biases about what is considered a good communication and which arguments are stronger than others. And when we work on a multicultural team, it's important to be conscientious of the fact that not every culture experiences life, personally or professionally, the same way that we do. And learning about different cultures can help us to build effective multicultural teams. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Please join me in my office. Oh. Sorry. I'm too fast. Let's have a little chat before we continue with our program. Let me pull up our lovely Q&A app here. Thank you for that. Yeah. What a great person to talk about this. All right. We've got some cues. Let me just approve some of them so that we can read them. To what extent, and this could be in theory or in practice. I feel like I'm in a tech interview. I know. It's like a little talk show, like an Oprah moment is how I like to think about it. But what are you giving me? Well look under your seat. No, I'm kidding. To what extent do you introduce, in practice or theory, personality tests or workshops in order to improve your team members' communication if it's a very multicultural? That's tricky. Well, me personally, I don't know if I would do a personality test necessarily. I think it's important to do like a ways of working. So my team, we just had an offsite. We did a ways of working workshop. And essentially we walked through, we had a personal map for each of us that kind of explained where we've come from, how we got to where we are, things that bother us at work, things that really make us happy to work with someone else. And we each spent five to seven minutes talking about those things. And at the end we made a ways of working agreement for our team. So that is something I would absolutely introduce to the team. And as new team members come in, reintroduce that exercise because people's motivation and work style definitely change. Yeah, I think, I mean, that's very sound. Let me look at the list. So someone anonymous says, I come from a direct negative feedback culture and I find indirect feedback incomplete and dishonest. How to ask effectively what the person is thinking. That's great. This is something we're going through at work right now as well because it's like development talk seasons where you're really planning out your career future. And as a result, you have to get feedback from everyone on your team. This is tricky because you don't want to push people into looking for faults. But at the same time, if you are only giving positive reinforcement, it can come off as disingenuous and like you didn't think about it. So something that we do, we're trying to be better at is to give feedback more often. So after a work stream, you do a little retro, just your little work stream, you say, hey, how did I do? What could I do better next time? So getting it in the moment helps people. I think having that ways of working agreement kind of creates a safe atmosphere. I think that's the biggest thing when you're getting negative feedback. You want to be in a safe and inclusive environment. And if that's missing, it's going to be really difficult to give people negative feedback. So that's what I would encourage is create a safe environment first and foremost. And get everyone on the same page. We have an internal training that talks about what feedback, what good feedback is, right? So you shouldn't be giving someone feedback about their personality traits. It should be things that they can change or behaviors, not who they are. Focus on those things, like what things that they can change or what they can be doing better next time. And how would you recommend introducing some of these practices into a team that maybe hasn't practiced them before? One thing I also realized this time around is that I, as the person asking for feedback, was not doing my job correctly. So I think that's the first step is to kind of display, like, hey, here are the things that I'm actively working on in my career at this moment. How have I been doing on these different levels? Like asking for specific areas of feedback is going to be a great first step to introducing that idea to your team. Kind of be the example. Right? Say my feelings are not going to get hurt. That was one thing in our ways of working activity we did was how do you like to receive feedback? Do you like it privately? Do you want it written? Do you want it verbally? Do you want it in the moment? And do you want me to, like, do that compliment sandwich or can I just be blunt with you? And the majority of our team was, like, flowers are for the garden. Just tell me how it is. And me as a new manager knowing that, hey, my team wants it directly, no fluff, like, that gave me the safe environment to be able to be honest. It reminds me of in one of my old jobs we used to have everyone on the team make a work with me doc where people would write in a little notion or a Google doc and be like give me feedback in private or give me feedback as quickly as possible to my face with no decoration. So that kind of matches up a little bit. Yeah. Absolutely. Very helpful. If you haven't done that exercise with your team, try it out. We're going to do one more and then we're going to move on and Emma, I think, will be at the speaker Q&A room if you have more questions. I don't know if you've encountered this because I assume you work in English. I do work, yeah. But how much of these cultural things can be tied to language spoken? Being bilingual, I find myself giving different amounts of context and feedback based on what I'm speaking. That's such a great question. So, yeah, both in Germany when I was working at LogMeIn and in Sweden at Spotify, I spoke English in both places. I totally empathize with the fact that if you're speaking a second language, you have a different personality, you have a different vocabulary, words have different meanings. Especially my personal life, my partner can probably attest to this. I try not to be too hard on him if he uses a word that makes me upset because I'm recognizing, hey, it's your second language. It probably doesn't mean something to you that it means to me. So when you are bilingual and you're working in your second language, honestly, just be transparent with your team and say, hey, I really want to give you constructive feedback. If I've used a word or a phrase that doesn't sit well with you, let's talk about it. That's why face-to-face is a little bit better than written because things can be misconstrued through text. I know face-to-face is much harder, but you're getting the body language as well and that helps. Honesty is the best policy. Honesty is the best policy, but not like mean honesty. There's no place for mean in feedback. I agree. That's the thing. Leave your judgment. You should be giving constructive feedback. That's the word here, right? Something they can do to improve. Something tangible and no judgment. Leave that. If it's something they can't change. Yeah. Well, thank you for your time, Emma. I'm going to let you be free and go to the speaker Q&A room. Thank you, Emma. Thank you. Thank you.
25 min
02 Dec, 2022

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