Conference Calls and Culture Clashes

Written by Dr Zsuzsanna Tungli, Managing Director of Developing Global Leaders Asia. Earlier version published in HQ Asia.

Picture this. Andrew Garde, the leader of a cross-geographic team in a large MNC sits in his Chicago office and dials in for a conference call. On the call is Cheng Yang, the marketing manager in Singapore, and Suwathana, the product manager in Thailand.

For the next half an hour, Andrew leads the discussion on how the team can launch a new product across different markets in Asia, including Singapore and Thailand. Andrew is keen to have the launch soon to stay ahead of their competitors. The team leader and its members sign the teleconference off with the following exchange:

Andrew Garde (AG): So when do you guys think we can launch this? It’s ambitious, but I know we can launch this in two months. What do you all think?

Cheng Yang: It certainly is ambitious. We can try our best…

AG: That’s great! What about you, Su?

Suwathana: Yes, I think it could be possible. You know we are getting a lot of requests from the headquarters lately.

AG: Yes. Yes. I appreciate how busy we all are. But this is a critical product for our company, so let’s make this work.

Suwathana: OK.

AG: Fantastic! Thanks for your commitment – this is going to be a game-changer for us. Alright, have a good day both of you!

CROSS-CULTURAL MISCOMMUNICATION

While it may appear Andrew has achieved consensus and buy-in from all parties, in reality they missed the deadline for the product launch. Andrew was frustrated that his Asian colleagues had failed to deliver on their commitments. But did they really commit?

In today’s globalised world, multinational teams are very common. Diverse teams can lead to increased creativity, better problem-solving capability, and deeper understanding of regional markets. But they can also lead to missed deadlines, deals going astray and low morale.

The primary points of contact for multinational teams are conference calls and emails, rather than face-to-face meetings. Hence, it is critical to understand and overcome the challenges inherent in cross-cultural conference calls. In any such call there are at least two important issues to consider.

1. THE ROLE OF HIERARCHY IN CULTURE

In the above scenario, Andrew is the team leader. However, the level of deference to leaders differs across cultures. In the US, there is an expectation of empowerment, open communication and even direct criticism. For Cheng Yang and Suwathana, however, their respective cultures – Singaporean Chinese and Thai – have taught them to respect hierarchy. This also means that they should not contradict their superiors, and certainly not in an open manner. When their team leader, Andrew, invites comments on the deadline, their natural tendency is to agree and to accept his suggestion.

Asian organisations tend to have hierarchical structures. Both Cheng Yang and Suwathana would have in-country supervisors, and Andrew failed to consider the importance of the respective in-country supervisors’ buy-in. Without this clear buy-in, other projects might take precedence and push Andrew’s project down the queue.

These cultural miscommunications can be overcome. In the above scenario, Andrew could have clearly stated that he required direct input, or given his team further opportunities to raise concerns discreetly – perhaps via email or in a subsequent one-on-one conversation. Establishing greater trust with his Asian colleagues would also have made them more comfortable in expressing their concerns. Lastly, he should have avoided presenting his views until others had had a chance to express theirs. By first stating, “I know we can launch this in two months”, he made it difficult for his Asian colleagues to voice their doubts – and together work out alternate solutions.

2. UNDERSTANDING DIRECT AND INDIRECT COMMUNICATION

Direct communication means, “I tell you exactly what I think in a straightforward manner, and you don’t have to guess the meaning of my words.” Truth comes first. Indirect communication is subtler. People choose their words carefully. Harmony comes first.

Both styles can be effective in their proper cultural context. The challenge comes when people who use different communication styles interact. While Asian cultures tend to favour indirect communication, the US is generally known as having a culture of direct communication. In this scenario, Andrew failed to pick up the indirect signals that indicated Cheng Yang and Suwathana had concerns about the project timeline.

Let’s take Cheng Yang’s comment, “It certainly is ambitious. We can try our best…” To Andrew, it sounded like a commitment to deliver. To Cheng Yang, however, this was a commitment to endeavour, not promise of delivery – and should raise a red flag.

When Suwathana mentioned, “You know we are getting a lot of additional requests from the head- quarters lately,” she had assumed that Andrew would understand that she meant she was overloaded. Her “OK” was not an acceptance of the deadline, but instead that she understood Andrew’s wish for a speedy project delivery.

How could Andrew have better communicated with his Asian colleagues? He could have clarified to ensure there was a mutual understanding, or asked his colleagues to summarise the takeaways from the meeting. It would have also helped if Andrew had first met his colleagues in Asia and taken time to interact with them on social matters before jumping to the topic at hand.

Most importantly, it helps to first forge strong relationships across teams. These relationships are the key pillars that facilitate more open communication channels. Some may say that we do not have time to make small talk. But it is better to spend time getting to know your international colleagues socially, than end up with projects that miss their deadlines by months.

Earlier version published in HQ Asia. Read the earlier version here.

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