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.

Chinese New Year in Singapore

Since 8 is an auspicious number for the Chinese, we present to you eight expat tips for Chinese New Year:

  1. Chinese New Year is a two-day public holiday in Singapore, although it’s actually celebrated for 15 days. During this time  it’s common to visit family and friends. In other countries, the public holiday is longer. Eight days in China and three days in Taiwan, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Macau.
  2. To wish someone a Happy New Year, you can use the traditional expression “Gong Xi Fa Cai” which means, “Wishing you a prosperous New Year”.
  3. If you’re invited to a Chinese New Year celebration, don’t wear white. White is associated with death.
  4. At a New Year meal, you may get to participate in the fun Singaporean tradition of tossing the Yu Sheng. Yu Sheng is a beautifully composed salad of raw fish, vegetables and sauces. Guests use their chopsticks to toss the salad into the air while yelling good wishes for the New Year. Remember that the higher you toss, the more prosperous your year will be.
  5. The word for Mandarin orange in Cantonese sounds like the word for gold, so the giving and receiving of these oranges has become a New Year tradition. If you were to visit a friend for the New Year, you should bring 2 oranges in a red gift bag. They would then give you 2 oranges in return.
  6. Your hosts will be delighted if you arrive at their celebration with ‘hong bao’ or red packets for their children. Whatever amount you decide to give, make sure it’s in crisp, new bills and that neither the number of bills nor the amount of dollars contains the number ‘4’ as this is an unlucky number.
  7. Many people also give ‘hong bao’, as we might give Christmas bonuses, to service people who they deal with on a regular basis. Don’t be surprised if the recipient doesn’t immediately open your red packet. It’s considered bad manners to open a gift in front of the giver.
  8. This is the only time of the year when some shops in Singapore close. If you were surprised to find most shops and restaurants open on Christmas day, Chinese New Year is slightly different. Small shops, hawker stalls and family-owned businesses are likely to be closed. Big restaurant chains and malls, as well as tourist attractions, will be open as usual.
Eight practical tips for house-hunting when moving to Singapore

Choosing housing for your expat assignment can be quite challenging since it’s often done on a very short house hunting trip.  Doing some prep work before you arrive in Singapore for your house hunting trip can make the whole experience more enjoyable and rewarding.

BE AS OPEN MINDED AS POSSIBLE

This will come in handy, not only for the house hunt, but for your expat experience.  Your housing options may be quite different from those at home.  Communicate your preferences to your realtor but allow them to use their expertise.  You might be surprised at where you end up.

HAVE YOUR PRIORITIES IN ORDER

Take some time to think about and write down those things that you ‘must have’ versus those that are ‘nice to have’.  It might be essential for you to have three bedrooms and a nearby park so your son can play football, but while you would love a water view and a dishwasher, those are things you could live without.

USE YOUR LIMIT WISELY

Some companies specify to the realtor how many properties they should show.  Since Singaporeans tend to follow instructions, if your company said to show you 8 properties, you may only be shown exactly 8 properties.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Remember that this is not a forever house.  But your housing choice may help define where you shop, where you dine, where you spend your leisure time and, even with whom you socialize.  Consider commute times, location of schools, what you like to do for recreation, etc. and include those items on your priority list.

TRANSPORTATION OPTIONS

The MRT is not the only public transportation option in Singapore.  Don’t limit your housing search just based on MRT access.  Expats may discount busses, but they are often the most direct, convenient and comfortable way to get to many destinations.  And, they are easy to use with the right smartphone apps!  There are also taxis, some neighbourhood shuttle busses, and the option to purchase or lease a car.

CHOOSE YOUR REALTOR WISELY

Unlike in some other countries, in Singapore your relationship with your realtor will likely to continue for the length of your lease.  They will be your champion in disputes with your landlord, so choose wisely.  Your employer may recommend a realtor, but talk to individual employees or other expats about their experiences.  They may have additional suggestions.

PAY ATTENTION TO WHO OWNS THE APARTMENT

If your landlord lives too close or too far away, they may either be too much in your business or unavailable if something needs fixing.  If you can, have a conversation with the landlord to see his reactions. Many landlords leave the negotiation to the real estate agent.

NEGOTIATE

The Singapore market, while still hot, has softened somewhat over the last couple of years.  The landlord may not want to lower the rent that you’ll be paying, but it may be possible to have other valuable things included in the rent.  Consider asking for use of some furniture, money toward utilities, weekly cleaning or air conditioning maintenance.

The importance of cross-cultural relocation training

In multinational organizations international assignees – both short and long term – play very important and somewhat unique roles. They may be sent abroad for setting up a new operation, for development purposes, sharing best practices and corporate culture, problem solving, filling skill gaps or running projects. Well prepared assignees have a much better chance of success.

Practice and research show significant losses, between $250,000 and $1 million for each individual, when assignees fail. This includes direct costs, such as salary and benefits, relocation expenses, and training and development. There are also the indirect costs to consider such as inefficiency and low morale of the local staff, damaged relationships with key clients in the region, future difficulty in recruiting for the location and the negative impact on the expat involved as well as on her/his family.

Technical competence is a must and in the international environment combined with cross-cultural sensitivity. Cross-cultural relocation training is therefore an important part of setting up assignees and their families for success.

Best practices for expatriate cross-cultural relocation programs

An effective program should have the following components:

  • The training session should have a focus on every-day business situations so that the expatriate is able to use the learnings immediately in her/his work
  • A blended approach of training and coaching over a 4-6 week time period so the expat and spouse/partner can practice what they have learned while receiving support
  • Allowing the expatriate and spouse to assess their own cultural biases, in addition to learning about the other culture/cultures
  • Providing recommendations for how the expatriate can adjust her/his behavior in order to be most effective
  • Addressing the assignee’s specific concerns and issues
  • Inviting the participation of the spouse since the lack of the spouse’s or the family’s adjustment are the most often quoted reasons for expatriate premature return
Benefits of a Cross-Cultural Relocation Program

Expatriates often quote the following two points as the most important benefits of cross-cultural programs: 1) Becoming aware of how their own cultural perceptions and biases impact the interactions with their colleagues, customers, partners, etc., and 2) The understanding of how cultures influence peoples’ behaviors (e.g. having a different approach to time, using a direct or indirect communication style, respecting or almost ignoring hierarchy).

Other benefits include:
  • Accelerated readiness for effective work performance
  • Realistic expectations and overall better preparation for work and life adjustments required in the new location
  • Effective communication with international colleagues and the local office
  • More fulfilling experience during the assignment

A quality relocation training program gives expatriates a heightened chance for success in their intercultural interactions and a good foundation on which they can further develop their cross-cultural competence. And when the assignee succeeds, so does the organization.

Basic cross-cultural survival tips for new Western APAC leaders

Basic cross-cultural survival tips for new Western APAC leaders

Doing businesscan be risky and challenging for newcomers to Asia where many of the behaviours that made you respected and successful at home can be misunderstood and looked upon as arrogant or rude. While generalizing is always dangerous and there is no one “Asian culture”, just as there is no one “Western culture”, there are some cultural similarities among the countries in Asia. Knowing the basics can keep you from starting your business relationships on the wrong foot during those first visits.

1. If you are a man greeting a woman, say hello with a slight nod of your head, unless she extends her hand.

For religious and cultural reasons, many women in Asia do not shake hands with men. It could be embarrassing if you extend your hand to a woman. Also, when you do shake hands, with men or women, leave the bone-crushing handshake at home. Handshakes in Asia tend to be much less vigorous and forceful, and this is perfectly normal for both genders.

2. Give your business card with two hands and the text facing the recipient. Receive a business card the same way. Take a few seconds to study the card and don’t put it in your back pocket or write on it.

Have a good supply of business cards made when you arrive in Asia because you will go through many. In many Asian cultures, business cards are seen as an extension of the person and should be treated with respect.

Lining up the business cards on the meeting table is appropriate and a great way to remember people’s titles and names. You may also want to put the cards in seniority order so you know to whom you should address most of your remarks and questions.

3. In a meeting or at a business meal, wait for your host to start talking business first. Expect a lot more “small talk” than you are probably used to.

In the US there is a saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” The opposite is true in Asia – business is considered very personal and successful business is built upon relationships.

4. Keep your emotions in check.

Harmony is an important value in Asia. Self-control is a virtue, and losing your temper will not help you gain respect.

5. During a group meeting, address your questions and comments to the most senior person in the room, but don’t openly challenge them.

Hierarchy is widely observed in Asia. Don’t be surprised if an employee who might be quite vocal when speaking to you one-on-one doesn’t say much or is vague when his manager is present.

Challenging people in front of others is a sure way for both parties to lose ‘face’ and can quickly sever a relationship.

6. Try to understand all the messages sent to you during your meetings. Look out for hesitation and non-verbal cues. There are many ways to say “no” in Asia without using the actual word “no”.

While you may value being direct and saying what you mean, especially in business, this is not a value that is typically shared in Asia. You may need to read between the lines and observe facial expressions and body language to get the real message behind the words.

7. When asking a question or waiting for a comment, you may need to wait longer than you are accustomed to. Don’t always fill the silence.

Asians typically have a longer gap in their communication between sentences than most Western cultures. The silence might make you feel uncomfortable and that’s okay. This gap is natural for Asian speakers because that is the way they use language, both native and foreign.

8. Invest in developing your cross-cultural competence, it will make your work more effective and your foreign experience more enjoyable.

Learning how to correctly pass a business card is easy and important, but understanding how to motivate your Asian team or how to successfully conclude a business deal is not as simple.

You may have heard the analogy that culture is like an iceberg. The 10% of the iceberg that is above the water represents people’s behaviours you can observe with your senses. The above tips are just a few of the behaviours you may encounter when first visiting Asia. The 90% that is below the water are the values, beliefs and often subconscious assumptions that inform those behaviours. Understanding those values, beliefs and assumptions are the key to being a successful leader in Asia.

Find out more about cultural training click here.

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