Monday, November 16, 2009

There are a thousand meanings for 'yes': a lesson in cultural awareness

I've had a meeting blown out through what amounts to a classic cultural disconnect.

At the moment I'm doing a small piece of work for a company with an AsiaPac office. We had a meeting and a follow-up telecon last week at which I specified a few actions that needed to happen on the client side to move the project along. At the meeting, everyone agreed with the proposed actions, we divvied them up and set a touch point for today to check in on progress.

The AsiaPac guys seemed enthusiastic, made all the right noises and nodded their heads vigorously when actions came their way. Their English was excellent......and I assumed they understood what was needed of them.

Lesson 1: never assume

The alarm bells rang just a little on Friday when the follow-up telecon became a repeat of the previous meeting. instead of moving the conversation on, we seemed to be covering the same ground. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to this week's meeting where we'd be able to share the results of everyone's actions. Except the meeting has been postponed - and no actions have actually taken place.

Apparently, the AsiaPac guys hadn't really understood what I and their EMEA colleagues were asking them to do. But to have said so in the meeting would have been a huge loss of face. So every time they were asked to support an action or to let us know whether they understood or agreed with what we were asking them to do, they just smiled and said yes. Clearly, we hadn't made our case well - but our colleagues were too polite to point this out.

My EMEA contact who cancelled the meeting today told me that after the meeting and on the flight back, his AsiaPac colleagues had got into an argument over what was required of them: there were two distinct camps with opposing views and neither was prepared to back down. The result was, that when they were back at base, they did nothing. It's culturally not in their make-up to ask for help - especially from another office, and actually more acceptable to put their collective heads in the sand and wait for resolution.

Lesson 2: patience pays off

Picking up on what had most probably been happening, my EMEA colleague has spent several long telephone calls over the weekend taking his colleagues through the plan again, checking their understanding at every point; getting them to play back exactly what their role is and setting a revised deadline for action. Without being rude, he hasn't accepted the 'yes' responses at face value, but has continued to question, check understanding and build confidence. I've learned a lot from him in a short space of time.

Just because it's a western company, we can't impose a western outlook on employees with very different cultural values and working practices.

Our next call is for a few days' time: I'm going to be much more tuned-in to the nuances behind every 'yes' this time round.

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