Found in Translation: Fostering Better Communications Across Global Teams

4 ways to build better understanding

Shortly after arriving in the U.S. from Brazil, I stirred a brief workplace panic over my inelegant use of the word "okay." I had been asked by a manager how an important client meeting had gone and thinking it had been productive and positive I cheerfully said it was "okay."


Whether it was my delivery or word choice, it quickly became clear that the message I wished to convey—that the meeting had gone well—was not what it sounded like to my manager. She assumed I was saying the meeting was decidedly so-so.

While a colleague was able to clear things up, the episode impressed on me the importance of becoming an expert in the cultural cues of my new environment. In the five years since, I've found I'm constantly unpacking how various aspects of nationality impact global business.

Considering the global diversity of the agency workforce, the need for this kind of cross-cultural understanding has never been greater. Luckily, there are several easy steps managers can take to improve communications. Following are four to get started with:

Recognize potential disconnects between language and culture

As I quickly learned, just because we're all speaking English doesn't mean we're saying the same thing. Meaning can vary not just depending upon level of fluency but on our underlying cultural beliefs, expectations and biases.

Native English speakers often expect people from other cultures who sound reasonably fluent to be operating from the same cultural blueprint and set of expectations that they are. But often this is not the case.

For instance, people in some cultures are loath to ever say no, even if they disagree. On the flip side, other cultures are more blunt, which can bring its own issues—if you provide critical feedback but swaddle it in positive affirmations, they may not recognize that anything is wrong. So you can have everyone thinking they're in complete agreement, when in fact they've drawn entirely different conclusions from the exact same encounter.

Make the implicit explicit

The good news is the more you communicate, the more opportunity there is to identify any crossed wires. The bad news? There are many crossed wires and they tend to pop up in the most ordinary encounters.

I've found that American leaders, for example, tend to use the word "we" when asking their teams to accomplish tasks, but without specifying which parts of the collective "we" is supposed to be doing what. While this may be empowering for members of individualist cultures to hear—give us the goal, we'll figure out how to get there—it can be confusing for members of collective and/or hierarchical cultures.

These individuals tend to wait for some type of collective agreement before jumping into the work. To simply decide on one's own without being explicitly assigned a task would be considered an overstep of authority.

Understanding these cultural differences and being as clear as possible is key. Something as simple as sending written recaps after meetings that reiterate what has been discussed and who is responsible for what. One-on-one follow-up calls to ensure everyone is on the same page and to clarify any questions can also be valuable.

Perfect the art of cross-cultural feedback

How we provide and receive criticism is something that varies from culture to culture. Considering how important constructive feedback is to the effective functioning of any business, understanding these intricacies is crucial.

Anglophone speakers tend to be less direct than Dutch or German people, but more direct than people in Mexico or Japan. So while it would be rude to tell someone in Japan that their work product needed to be improved, couching that same feedback in the form of light "suggestions" might be incomprehensible to someone in Germany where directness is expected.

To better match criticism style to cultural expectations, listening to the types of words that people from different nationalities use can provide guidance. More direct cultures tend to use "upgrader" words to make feedback clear—such as "definitely," "absolutely" and "strongly." Alternatively, less direct cultures lean more towards "downgrader" words such as: "a little bit," "maybe" and "perhaps." The meaning of the feedback might be the same, but the expression can be radically different.

Don't forget your audience's audience

In many instances, when you're communicating with a foreign team, you're not just speaking with them, you're communicating with whomever they themselves will be engaging in their local markets. Keeping these downstream audiences in mind is critical when it comes to refining how you present and share information.

The primary goal for these situations is to make any information as easily transferable as possible so you don't end up in a telephone game situation. One of the best ways of doing this is by leaning heavily on visuals, videos and images. Effective graphic communication can help clarify complex ideas, simplify intricate processes and enhance overall engagement while limiting language-based speed bumps.

Finally, the most important step companies can take to foster effective global communications is a commitment to nurturing self-awareness, knowledge and empathy across their worldwide workforces. Approaching peers from a position of respect and a willingness to adapt to alternative communication styles will allow us to reap the benefits of more effective output, both locally and around the world.

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Isabela Albero
Isabela Albero is managing director, global strategy at mSix&Partners.

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