Communication Strategies for Global Teams
Updated: Oct 31, 2021
If you work on any type of global team, you’ve probably seen some bad communication happen. From what I’ve seen myself and also heard from many other people, this miscommunication happens far too often and is rarely fixed. However, the good news is that if we increase our awareness we can improve communication between people from different cultures, languages, and backgrounds.
Let’s look at the various types of miscommunication, why they exist, and strategies to fix them.
English is oftentimes the main language used on a global team, though of course not always. That puts the native English speakers at a powerful advantage when it comes to expressing ideas easily and confidently. If the native English speaker is not careful about speed and pronunciation, other teammates may not be able to keep up.
Have you ever experienced that?
My guess is that you probably have experienced that, and perhaps struggled to improve the situation.
Native English speakers are often from Western cultures and therefore bring their cultural values or tendencies into the way they communicate and relate on a team. In general, this means that the Western teammates express their ideas directly and confidently without wasting too much time in silent reflection. For them, many meetings are seen as some type of brainstorm session where diverse perspectives are valued and critical questions are viewed as helpful to the team.
If you look at other cultures (let’s take Japan as an example) some of the key values include avoiding conflict, maintaining harmony, listening more than speaking, and showing respect and politeness. Certainly, challenging others – particularly those with a higher position in the company – is seen as very negative.
So let’s examine this clashing difference between Western and Japanese cultures. And just to be clear, this is a generalization about Western cultures and about Japanese culture, even though we can find various nuances and exceptions, of course.
If I’m an American and I notice my Japanese teammate very quietly sitting at a meeting and respectfully agreeing with everything people say, I may actually wonder: Is she actually even a useful teammate. From my American perspective, I want her to add more ideas, ask questions to improve other peoples’ ideas, and overall add value through some sort of unique participation. If I don’t understand the cultural dynamics, I may even decide that she is lazy, uncreative, less intelligent, or not very valuable to our team.
Now, of course, this is a cross-cultural miscommunication. In the same way, it’s valuable for Japanese to understand that Americans are trying to add value to the team when they speak more, ask questions, or challenge other people’s ideas?
Strategies to Improve Communication
So now what are some strategies to help diverse teams communicate and collaborate in ways that are respectful of different cultures. How can we utilize the common language of English, but also adapt it to non-native speakers and create more synergy across cultures and languages?
Side note: There are many, many ways you could approach this, and I’m gong to share a couple.
In my opinion, deep awareness is the most important first step.
Awareness of one’s self, awareness of others, and awareness of how people experience the interaction of language and culture. So anyone on a team can improve their own awareness as well as their awareness of others. However, it’s often important for people in leadership or management positions to take the initiative to help the whole team create awareness.
In addition, the person in leadership can create or adjust the system or structure of the team and it’s communication styles in order to help all parties have a more productive and a more comfortable experience.
So my recommendation to any manager would be to hold a "culture and communication awareness" meeting. In such a meeting, we would be able to help identify problems and adjust our awareness.
For example, if I’m the leader, I can ask both the native and non-native English speakers about their experiences and struggles. Probably we will identify at least one of the native English speakers who has a bad habit of speaking too fast or too much. We can help them slow down to a more comfortable speed for the other teammates.
At the same time, I would ask the fast talker to have regular check-ins with other teammates. If at least one time per meeting the fast talker could ask the group how her or his communication speed is for everyone, then people would have the opportunity to ask her or him to slow down. Not only this, but I would request the non-native English speakers to interrupt the fast talker any time they need a slower speed or a clarification.
If you are a non-native English speaker, keep in mind that you can actually help improve a native English speaker’s communication by asking them to slow down or speak more clearly. Just because they speak fast or in a fancy way does not mean they are a good communicator.
In fact, the slower and more simply a person speaks, the more effective they can often be as an influential and harmonious global communicator.
As you can see, with just one meeting and a few adjustments we can start improving awareness and good communication. Once the awareness is there and once a team has a few practical tools, they can self-sufficiently grow together in their communication.
One other strategy I would introduce to the team would be to break into smaller groups based on language. The purpose is not to segregate or discriminate. Instead, the goal would be to increase the quantity and quality of communication.
For example, if the meeting has twelve people, break into roughly three groups of four during part of the meeting. Perhaps one group would use English, another would use Japanese, and still the other group could use French or Korean. This way, instead of a big group with confident English speakers dominating the discussion, all members can speak in their most natural language with a small group in which they will have more time to talk and also more shared context around their cultural perspectives.
This might be very helpful for non-native English speakers or individuals who are less outgoing or from quieter cultures. After a while, each small group could select one representative to share their overall ideas with the larger group and then they could continue to incorporate all the ideas together. This format would not only democratize the system but also add rich value from each cultural and linguistic perspective so as to create the best experience and results possible.
Some people or teams may feel a bit strange or awkward talking about the different cultural and communication struggles within their team. Maybe it would be difficult to persuade people to have such a meeting as I mentioned. Certainly, the first meeting would be the most sensitive since people might feel embarrassed or defensive about their own communication problems.
However, if you can simply start improving the awareness and connection on a team, it will no doubt be a very useful long-term investment – not only for the team or company, but also for each person who benefits directly.
Cross-cultural miscommunication on teams is a sad reality, but if we make some time and space, we can create the awareness to improve ourselves and our teams.
It all starts with a little bit of action, reflection, and awareness.
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