5 Tips for effective cross-cultural Communication

20130202-180627.jpg You think the golden rule of “treat others the way you want to be treated” works when you’re crossing cultures?Think again.

Your new hire from Mexico has just arrived at your Houston office. You’ve shown her her desk, talked about her objectives, she’s had newbie orientation about your company’s sexual harassment and privacy policies, and you plan on checking in again in a couple of weeks. She’s back in your office after 10 days handing in her resignation. What happened?

Talking very broadly here, reminding you to take every generalization with a pinch of salt: people are different and there are always exceptions to the rule. However, cultural research has shown that Mexicans tend to prefer a different style of leadership than Americans. In America, freedom and equality are held in such high esteem that any close supervision or micromanagement is considered patronizing. “If I need help, I’ll ask for it, and I can do this alone!” seems to be expected, accepted, and respected in most positions. Team work is encouraged on paper, but what often happens is the task gets split into various pieces that each team member works on individually; the team leader then patches the contributions together into a more or less coherent whole. In other words, give an American a goal to work towards, a deadline, and leave the way of achieving the task up to them.

The Mexican lady from our example, however, is likely to expect and appreciate some more detailed attention. I know of some cases where the person in question went hungry for a few days, because none of the coworkers showed her the way to the cafeteria. She counted on her colleagues to take her in and show her the ropes, explain the unwritten politics and make her feel welcome, because that’s what she would have done. People take care of and pay attention to each other differently in Mexico, for example, within the first week of our stay in Aguascalientes, we were invited to have dinner with colleagues, met their families, parents, and in-laws. These were invitations from peers, mind you, because different levels in hierarchy form sometimes quite insurmountable boundaries. But that’s another story.

Can you imagine, then, what being left alone for two weeks meant to her? In a new job, by the people she’s supposed to be able to depend on? She didn’t recognize the intended discretion and respect for her competence to figure out her own way, on the contrary, I’d venture she felt completely abandoned.

Understanding cultural differences could have helped both parties enjoy a much smoother transition. Next time you hire someone from another country, here are some tips to make sure you’re both on the same page:

1. Get cultured

To avoid offending not just your international employees but also your international customers, make sure you and your team leaders are aware of cultural differences. Get trained in the basics and have systems in place to periodically refresh your knowledge. Have a coach or cultural trainer on hand for specific ad-hoc questions about how to handle situations that have come up.

2. Encourage diversity

Create an environment where all employees feel valued and respected. Invite your employees to share details about their cultural preferences amongst each other by bringing in food samples, labeling office items in their native language, or sharing stories. We only fear what we don’t know, and learning about our colleagues’ backgrounds will facilitate a friendlier work environment.

3. Offer training

Your understanding other people’s culture is the first half of the cake. Help them understand your preferences by offering periodic cultural training workshops. Either individually for expatriates coming over with their families, or group sessions for international teams who have identified communication or team work issues. Awareness combats misunderstandings and provides a language to articulate differences. Let’s face it, sometimes people don’t get along and it’s nothing personal, it’s cultural.

4. Don’t assume anything

Chances are, Mexicans will appreciate more detailed instructions on how you’d like them to achieve their goals, as well as more personalized contact to make them feel welcome. You won’t know until you ask. Maybe they’ve studied in the States and quite like their individual freedom. Make more information available to new hires, set aside some time to go for lunch with them and the new team (they might feel uncomfortable having lunch with the boss alone), have a conversation, or assign a work-buddy for them to turn to when questions arise. Remember, "assume" sometimes means making an ass out of u and me!

5. Use feedback

Your people on the floor and your customers will tell you how to keep them happy if you ask. Keep it confidential and anonymous, and if the same suggestion comes up repeatedly, do something about it. As a successful business leader you’re probably doing this already, I’m just here to point out that once isn’t enough, just like one training won’t be sufficient. Follow-up to facilitate follow-through with action steps.