Category Archives: Relationships

“That’s Me!”

Discussion-dreamstime_1466208-smallerI was conducting a seminar in Egypt for multicultural leaders and dealing with the subject of cultural differences. The audience was almost completely North American and Western European (individualistic cultures) and I was sharing about how people from collectivists cultures tend to think and interpret the world differently. During one of the breaks, Carlos, one of the few Asians in the room, came up to me and said, “Man, that’s me! That is totally the way I think”

Differences in interpreting the world around us are just one of the difficulties we face in multi-cultural leadership. The current series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication.  Part 3 and   Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. In Part 5, I talked about the importance of trust and things that break trust, and today I will share some specifics as to why cultural differences create trust problems.

Quick review: Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and can take a long time to build and be quickly destroyed.

So for today our question is: how do cultural differences make building and maintaining trust even more difficult? Here are a few reasons.

1. Communication is harder. In this blog from the past I talked about communication differences between cultures. These differences can be seen as withholding information which is known to break trust (from my last blog.)

2. Ethics are different. Different cultures tend to view relationship and responsibilities differently, which can lead to misunderstandings about honesty and dishonesty. As we discussed in the last blog, this can break trust.

3. Western reliance on contracts and non-Western reliance on relationships. Westerners value contracts in a business relationship and non-Westerners value relationships. For non-Westerners, the relationship is what matters, so agreements can change as the relationship changes. Not wanting to have a contract or not abiding by the written contract can be seen as deceitfulness and unreliability to Westerners– something that will break trust.

4. Leadership values and styles. Leadership and management styles differ greatly between cultures. Westerners working for non-Western managers tend to feel controlled by management and want more independence. Non-Westerners working for Western managers usually want more guidance, instruction, and oversight than the Western manager is willing to give. Both situations destroy trust.

5. Different attitudes toward time. Some cultures are “clock time” cultures in which appointments are governed by the clock and tend to be exact. Other cultures are “even time” cultures and starting times tend to be very loose according to the clock. This is a problem because lack of promptness or precision in deadlines and meetings often destroys trust in Western people’s thinking.

These are some important issues to think about and deal with in multi-cultural leadership.

Next time we will talk about how the leader of international teams can build trust among members.

I Punched Myself In the Nose

defiance-dreamstime_1117360-smallThe kid was much older than me and was the bully of the neighborhood, but I thought he was cool and wanted to please him. So, when he told me he wanted to see how strong I was I trusted him. When he told me to hold my palm up and make a fist, I trusted him. When he told me to pull up as hard as I could so he could test my strength, I trusted him. When he quickly pulled his hand away, I punched myself in the nose. I never trusted him again.

Trust is the foundation of all human relationships and is made more complicated when team members  are from different cultures. We’ll talk more about that in just a minute.

This series is about how do be a better multi-cultural leader. Part 1 was an introduction, Part 2 was about high-context and low-context communication.  Part 3 and Part 4 were about direct and indirect communication. Today I will talk about trust.

4 Things That Break Trust
Unfortunately, trust can take a long time to build and can be destroyed quickly in one instant. That is why we need to constantly keep in mind how to build and maintain trust among our co-workers. The following 4 things will quickly destroy trust and should be avoided at all costs.

1. Talking about others behind their backs (gossip.) Most people enjoy hearing juicy bits of gossip about others, but we always walk away with the thought, “What is he saying about ME when I am not around?” This will destroy trust. Don’t do it.

2. Not doing what you say you will (undependability.) Trust is built when we do what we will say we will do at the time we say we will do it. Not being dependable will break down trust. Don’t do it.

3. Giving false information (dishonesty.) Even when it comes to small things (“white lies” we call them in American culture), falsehoods never lead to trust. When someone is dishonest, even in a small thing, we always wonder, “What else is she lying to me about?” Dishonesty kills trust. Don’t do it.

4. Withholding information (secrecy.) The old adage says: knowledge is power. We’re wrong if we believe and practice that principle because it destroys trust in relationships. Withholding vital information hinders trust. Don’t do it.

Wow! Just NOT doing those 4 things can be really hard because of old, bad habits we have been practicing. I believe it’s important, though.

On top of that, building trust is even more difficult in a multi-cultural situation. We’ll look at that next time.

Question for discussion: Think of a time when trust was broken in a relationship you had. Was it because of one of the 4 trust-breakers mentioned above? Please post your thoughts and comments.

Is It Rude To Say “No”? Yes, But…

Mr. LiI remember the day well when Mr. Li smiled at me and said, “In China, we never say ‘no’ because it is considered rude.”

“How do you say ‘no’ then?” I asked.

“We have a very clever way to say ‘no,’” he responded.

More on that in just a minute.

We’ve been talking about leading a multi-cultural team. In Part 1, we had some important introductory thoughts. In Part 2, we talked about high/low context communication. Last time, in Part 3, we talked about direct/indirect communication. Today, I want to continue the discussion about direct and indirect communication with an personal example of how I learned an important lesson on this topic.

Mr Li was the middleman between me and the university where I used to teach and now hosted our private language school that I had founded. We had spent many hours and years together and he had become a good friend. I would often sit in his office and learn about Chinese culture from the things he told me and the things I observed. I enjoyed my time with him greatly.

One day he told me that Chinese people never directly say “no.” This surprised me because nobody can say “yes” to everything, so I questioned him for a deeper answer. He told me it was easy to say “no” without really saying “no.”

Then he told me the secret: Always answer, “yes, but…”

When someone asks you to do something and you can’t or don’t want to do it, simply answer, “Yes, but…” and give some kind of objection or explanation.

This is a classic example of the type of indirect communication I talked about in the last post. Direct communicators are very likely to say “no” if they can’t or won’t do something. Indirect communicators will not say so directly, but will expect the listener to understand the “no” from the context.

Mr. Li taught me a great lesson and I used it often in my next few years in China. After I would give a lecture, inevitably visiting students from other universities approach me after the lecture and would ask me to give a lecture at their university. My answer would be something like, “Yes, of course, but I am very busy in the days ahead. Please talk to me again later about it.”

Indirect communication. I didn’t say “no” in so many words, but the student clearly understood that I was actually declining the offer. Good communication isn’t easy, but it can be fun!

Question for discussion: If someone would ask to borrow your car but you don’t want to let them borrow it, how would you say that in a direct communication style? An indirect communication style? Please post your thoughts and answers.

What Kind of Communicator Are You? you thought much about your personal communication style? Here is a self quiz that will give you some insight into the way you communicate.

1. Do you find it easy to talk about personal information with others?
2. Do you often disagree with others in a conversation?
3. Do you often try to persuade others in a conversation?
4. Do you expect others to understand your meaning even if you don’t say something directly?
5. Do you use the words “maybe” or “perhaps” often in your communication?
Do you focus more on what others don’t say, rather than on what they do say?

If you answered “yes” to the first 3 questions, then you are probably more of a direct communicator. If you answered “yes” to the last 3 questions, you are probably more of a an indirect communicator.

More on this in a second.

In Part 1 we talked about how hard multi-cultural communication can be and in Part 2 we talked about high/low context communication styles. Today we’re going to talk about direct and indirect communication.

What Does This Look Like?

People who are direct communicators like communication that is clear, direct, and precise. Think especially of Americans and Western Europeans. They are much more likely to “tell it like it is.”

People who are indirect communicators, tend to expect others to take their meaning from the context  and also like to be more polite in communication.

Why Is This A Problem?

One problem when people from different styles communicate is that that meanings are misunderstood. The direct communicator will not understand the subtle meanings that the indirect communicator is trying to give.

Another big problem is that direct communicators feel like an indirect communicator is not effective and is evasive. They can distrust an indirect communicator because they feel like the other person is hiding something. They aren’t; they are just communicating in a different way. Meanwhile, the indirect communicator feels like the direct communicator is rude and pushy.

What Can We Do?

When we are leading a team of people with different communication styles, here are some things that will help us all communicate better.

1. Talk about it. Just knowing that these styles exist and are different will help everyone be more in tune to their own communication style and the styles of the other team members.

2. For the indirect communicators: aim for a more direct style. Even though it might feel awkward  and rude to them, help them understand that the direct communicator cannot pick up on the subtle clues that seem obvious to the indirect communicator.

3. For the direct communicators: try to be more indirect and a “softer” communicator. Avoid directly disagreeing with co-workers, and voice disagreements in more subtle ways. Be less confrontational and use words like “maybe” and “perhaps” more often.

Questions for discussion: Think of a discussion you had today. Was it more direct or more indirect? Do you think you can change your communication style? Please post your thoughts.

Multi-Cultural Leadership- Part 2 (High/Low Context Communication)

away message-smallIn Part 1, we talked about how hard it is to be a leader in multi-cultural situations. Yet, most of us find ourselves in exactly this kind of circumstance in today’s world. Today we’re going to talk about how to improve our multi-cultural communication skills.

Communication- what is it?

Recently, I met a pilot who is from a Middle Eastern country and flies for the local airlines. I asked him how much he uses Arabic (his native language) and how much he uses English when he is flying. He told me that when he is flying he is not allowed to use Arabic at all and must use English.

Communication is critical at 10,000 meters in the air when the lives of dozens of people are in your hands. That is why everyone who pilots an airplane or controls the movements of those airplanes from the ground must use the same language so that there can be good communication between all parties. Communication is also critical for us as we manage and lead in international situations.

It takes more than just a common language, though, to have real communication. Even when we all speak the same language it’s possible that communication can be misunderstood because of other cultural ideas besides words.

Two of the biggest differences between cultures in communication is High-Context/Low-Context communication and Direct/Indirect communication.

High/Low Context Communication

Cultures that are high context rely on a lot of background information for communication to occur. Think of Japanese culture, for example. Everyone grows up hearing the same stories and revering the same great people from the past. So when people communicate they just have to say a few words and it brings a whole story to mind. Communication is not so much in words and can only be understood in context. Sometimes, the most important things are what is not said.

Cultures that are low context rely much more heavily on the words that are spoken for understanding to take place. Think of the United States, for example. A high percentage of Americans are immigrants or have parents or grandparents that were immigrants. They all grew up hearing different stories from different original cultures and have few common fables to help communication. Communication is very direct and very clear. The spoken word is everything.

So how does the leader communicate when she is leading a multicultural team with some members who are high context communicators and some team members who are low context communicators? Here are some things that may help.

1. Bring the problem to light. Make sure members of your team understand that some of the team are high context and some of the team are low context communicators and that they will communicate differently.

2. Double up on communication. Go out of your way to communicate important thoughts in both a high context and a low context way. Understand that just because you say something in a way that you understand, this does not mean that the members of your team will understand it.

3. Go the extra mile. Because it’s easier to communicate in your “native” way, go out of your way to communicate more like a high-context culture if you are from a low-context culture, or vice-versa.

4. Develop a team communication culture. As your team is together help them develop a team culture that may be halfway between high context and low context. When you are in a meeting and you see someone falling back into their native culture communication style, gently bring them back to the team communication style.

In my next post, we’ll talk about another extremely important concept in multicultural communication– direct/indirect communication styles.

Question for discussion: Think of a situation where you need to communicate an idea with a team. Please post an example of how you would do that in a high-context and a low-context format.

Multi-Cultural Leadership- Part 1

3D Office-smallOne day a manager walking down the hallway glanced into the office of one of his direct reports and saw him playing a video game on his computer.

The boss asked, “Why aren’t you working?”

The reply was, “I didn’t see you coming.”

Wow!  A little too honest.

But what is “honest” when you work on a team that is multi-cultural and one member’s idea of “honest” is different than another’s “honest”?

In Arab culture, the standard greeting is, “How are you doing?” to which the only acceptable answer is, “Good, praise God.” There really is nothing you can say if you are not doing well.

My “home culture” (American) is not too different. People greet each other with, “How are you doing?”  The normal answer is, “Good!” If you answer, “I have a slight headache today because I didn’t sleep too well last night and I’m worried about how I’m going to pay my mortgage this month. My daughter needs braces and my wife and I are having a hard time trying to decide when to do that and which doctor to use,” your friend will say, “Okay,” as he runs the other way.

The idea of “truth” and “politeness” from one culture to another is just one example of why it is so tough to lead in multi-cultural situations. It is difficult. But in this day and age, it’s hard to find anyone who has colleagues, customers, team members, or suppliers who are not from other countries and cultures.

This is a major test of leadership in the age in which we live and one that we have to deal with well.

Over the next few posts I’m going to share a little about how multi-culturalism affects our leadership and how to be a better leader in diverse cultural settings.

In future posts we will talk about how multi-culturalism affects:

Communication– how we exchange ideas and disclose information;

Trust– the basis of every human relationship;

Human resource policies– how we attract, train, and reward co-workers from various cultures;

Motivation– how we get peak performance from each co-worker when different people from different cultures are motivated in different ways; and

Performance reviews– how to assess a worker’s contribution when all assessment has, by definition, a cultural base.

So put away the video games (at least while the boss is looking) and think about how to be a better multi-cultural leader.

Question: How does multi-culturalism affect your work situation? What do you do to make the situation better? Please post some examples.

A Radical Idea for Employers

Hang on-dreamstime_3168716-smallNearly every day someone asks me to hire them.

Just today, the man who works in the dry cleaning shop asked if he could come work for me. Last week it was a guy at a restaurant, a man at a car upholstery shop, someone at a small market I visited, and a fellow whom I met while walking down the street.

Are these homeless, unemployed guys looking for work? No, they all are gainfully employed.

What’s that all about?

I’m pretty sure it has to do with respect and dignity. All of these people are foreigners from developing nations who are here in this country to work. They are marginalized in society and looked down upon.

When I meet them and interact with them, I see them as important because they are a person and deserve respect. I treat them with honor and dignity, no matter who they are and what part of society the belong to. Of course they want to work for me. If I was them, I would want to work for me, too.

Licking the Taco Shells
Maybe you saw the picture that went viral this week about an employee at a taco franchise who was photographed licking a stack of taco shells. I don’t know this guy, but I do know that he doesn’t care about the reputation of his employer. I have little doubt that he feels very little respect and dignity from his company. It’s only a job, and he will move on when something else better comes along. (He probably already is gone!)

I think there is a lesson here for all of us who are leaders, managers, and employers.

Are we the kind of captains that make our crew members stick around for more than a paycheck? We can be, if we will work at it and treat employees with regard and consideration.

One Radical Example  
I’m always intrigued by management’s attitudes in nearly all companies when the hiring/firing cycle is tied to the ups and downs of economy. What do we say to employees when we “let them go” because there is s slow-down int the economy?

I would rather have a company meeting and let the employees decide between 2 choices: letting some of their co-workers go or everyone (including executives and management) taking a small pay cut. Let the employees decide. My guess is that most employees would vote to take a 15% pay cut if they knew that their friends’ jobs, and possibly their own job in the future, were secured by it.

What it would do is build a team spirit where employees are not disposable commodities, but an integral part of the enterprise? I believe it would change the whole nature of the company and the attitudes of the employees.

A radical idea, but one worth investigating.

Question for discussion: What do you think of the idea of hiring employees “for life” and letting all employees take a pay cut to make sure that nobody gets laid off? Is that a good idea?

5 Monkeys, a Ladder, and A Bunch of Bananas of my favorite research projects involves five monkeys, a ladder, and a bunch of bananas.

The experiment involved putting five monkeys into a cage with bananas hanging from the ceiling. Directly under the bananas was a ladder that the monkeys could climb to get the bananas. The only catch was as soon as a monkey would start to climb the ladder the entire cage would be sprayed with cold water.

Soon the monkeys made the connection between climbing the ladder and being sprayed with cold water. Whenever one of the monkeys would try to get to the bananas the other four monkeys would pull him off the ladder to keep from getting doused.

After this behavior was established the researchers removed one monkey and replaced him with a new monkey that knew nothing about being sprayed with water. Of course, he immediately went to the ladder and begin to go for the bananas. As soon as he would start to climb, the other four monkeys would grab him and pull him off the ladder. Soon the new monkey learned that it was wrong to climb the ladder, although he had no idea why.

One-by-one, all of the original monkeys were replaced with 5 “new” monkeys.

Finally, one of the “new” monkeys was replaced with a “newer” monkey. Sure enough, when the newer monkey would try to climb the ladder to get to the bananas, the monkeys would tackle him and keep him from climbing. The interesting thing is that by now none of the original monkeys were in the cage, so none of them knew about getting sprayed with cold water or why they shouldn’t climb the ladder. All they knew is that it was wrong to try to get the bananas.

So it is with culture. We do the same thing with national culture, company culture, family culture, or one of the other sub-cultures we all are a part of. We do and say things that at one time were very important and had great meaning, but now we just do them out of habit and tradition.

The 5-monkey experiment encourages me to challenge my culture and my automatic actions and responses. It dares me to think through what I’m doing, and more importantly, why I’m doing it.

Maybe I should climb the ladders and eat the bananas; maybe I shouldn’t. But at least I need to understand why or why not eating the bananas is wrong.

Maybe we can learn something from 5 monkeys?

Can you think of any “5-monkey” things you do? Please post your thoughts.

Is It Really Better to Give or Receive?

commission- love money-dreamstime_4259186-sized for internetSometimes I think about one of my first birthdays in China and a cultural learning experience that I had. Since it was my birthday several of us went out to dinner to celebrate. One of my ex-pat friends who had been in China a long time leaned over to me in the middle of the meal and whispered in my ear, “In America when it’s your birthday, everybody treats you to a free meal. In China when it’s your birthday, you buy the meal for everyone else to celebrate.” Fortunately, I brought enough money with me to handle the unexpected expense.

A similar twist is seen in China on how you think about and talk to your mother on your birthday. In America, your birthday is all about you. In China, your birthday is about your mother. It’s important to remember to thank her for giving birth to you.

That may be a little bit backward for Westerners, but it certainly makes more sense, doesn’t it?

This idea got me thinking about giving and receiving. There’s a well-known Western proverb that says, “It is better to give than to receive.” When we’re children we don’t really believe that much and we think it’s just a trick our parents are playing on us so that we will be nice. But when we grow up a little, we find that it’s actually true.

Now science even backs up that idea. The American Psychological Association in their Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published a study* that supports the idea that we benefit more from giving than receiving, at least on a psychological level.

It seems to be true in every part of the world.

Researchers found that in 120 of 136 countries there was a positive relationship between spending money on others and personal well-being. This was true across many nations and in every part of the world.

Another study found the same thing to be true in both Canada and Uganda.

It seems to be true regardless of wealth or poverty.

In one study, participants were asked about a time when they either spent money on themselves or when they spent money on others. After this they reported how happy they felt. The people who reported on spending money on others were happier than the ones who reported spending money on themselves whether they were rich or poor. That same study was duplicated in India between different classes (rich and poor) and found the same results.

Other researchers found that regardless of income when people were given a small amount of money to buy a treat for themselves or for a child in a local hospital, they felt much better when the money was spent on a sick child.

Maybe your mom was right the whole time! Be sure th thank her on your next birthday.

Is it better to give or receive? Please post your thoughts.

* Aknin, L. B., Barrington-Leigh, C. P., Dunn, E. W., Helliwell, J. F., Burns, J., Biswas-Diener, R., Kemeza, I., Nyende, P., Ashton-James, C. E., & Norton, M. I. Pro-social Spending and Well-Being: Cross-Cultural Evidence for a Psychological Universal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, (in press) 2013 DOI: 10.1037/a0031578

Getting the Best Out of Stress-Part 3 is part three of a series of posts that will help us get the most out of the stress involved in adjusting to a new culture. In Part One, I talked about the fact that not all stress is bad. In fact, we enjoy stress. In Part Two, I shared 5 poor coping strategies. These are things that make us feel better and may temporarily relieve the stress, but ultimately do not help us to adjust to a new culture. These 5 coping strategies should be avoided.

Today, were going to talk about 6 coping strategies that we should use because they help us adjust to a new culture. While the poor coping strategies only make us feel better, these 6 things actually help the situation. We call these coping strategies “active” or “direct” because they involve actions and will help move our cultural adjustment forward.

Since learning a new language can be one of the most stressful parts of cultural adjustment, I’m going to illustrate each of these coping strategies with an example of how you might put them to use while learning a new language.

1. Planning. When you feel stress because of difficulty in learning a new language, set aside time every day to study. For example, make it your plan that from 2:00 to 3:00 you will review old vocabulary words, and from 3:00 until 4:00 you will work on new vocabulary words. That is a plan that will help you learn a new language and adjust to a new culture.

2. Suppression of competing activities. When you feel bad because you’re having trouble learning a new language, many people will throw themselves into reading a novel by playing video games. This helps relieve the stress because they’re thinking of something else, but it doesn’t help cultural adjustment. Ignore the tendency to do this and buckled down to the hard work.

3. Use of instrumental support. Surround yourself with people who can help you along your journey of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. Find a language tutor who will help you for a few minutes every day.

4. Waiting for an appropriate opportunity to act. The emphasis here is not on “waiting” but on “acting.” But the acting must be done at the proper time. One way to put this coping strategy into use is deciding when you will force yourself to use the target language. For example, make the commitment to yourself that every time you go to the market to go shopping you will only use Arabic even though it’s difficult and some of the shopkeepers want to speak with you in English.

5. Solving problems responsibly. This is simply not ignoring a problem and taking action steps to solve that problem. For instance, if you don’t understand some kind of grammar rule that you learned in class today, humble yourself, visit your next-door neighbor and ask them to explain that particular grammar rule.

6. Being socially involved with host country nationals. This should be obvious, but is one of the most important aspects of learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture. Spend time with your local friends, get to know them, ask them questions, keep a notebook of insights, and enjoy yourself in the local culture.

These are 6 things that you should do when the stress of learning a new language and culture are painful. Keep these in mind, practice them, and I can guarantee they will take you further down the road.

For discussion:  Can you think of a way that you can put one of these 6 active coping strategies to work for yourself today? Please tell us about it.