Monthly Archives: June 2013

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?