An article by Ellen Sheng, published by FastCompany, says that American companies working with offshore teams need to be aware of communication minefields that can arise because of cultural differences. But just knowing that differences exist is not enough – managers need to adapt by stepping out of their comfort zones and being prepared to really make an effort to understand and address the cultural differences that exist in a way that is respectful to the norms of the culture.
Sheng cites the example of Dan Chou’s painful learning experience when he went to India on a business trip. Chou, a former American investment banker in Hong Kong, “needed a very large presentation uploaded and printed within a few hours to prepare for a meeting. When he asked the India team if they could do it, he was pleasantly surprised when they assured him they could. But when it came time to pick up the presentations, they weren’t done.
“Looking back, Chou said, there were multiple problems with his request. Part of it was the India team not understanding the perceived deadlines. There was also an element of not wanting to say no, wishful thinking that they might be able to get it done, and conflict avoidance by saying yes and then hoping for the best. After having a chat with them a few months later, Chou said he learned that a lot of other issues also came out from that seemingly straightforward request. The team was resentful of a lack of respect, being overloaded with work and then being treated as a print shop.
“We needed to work on our end to work on the relationship and show respect for their time, too,” he says. Make sure you’re not coming in with: Hi, I’m the imperial American and I’m going to control this relationship. The perceived power can breed resentment. If you don’t show respect, that will play into it, he continues.”
Sheng also mentions the five key areas that Karine Schomer, a Bay Area management consultant, categorizes cultural conflicts:
Management hierarchy: In some cultures, it is expected that employees defer to managers. This deference is often a key reason why it’s hard to get honest feedback during meetings.
Different ideas about agreements and commitments: Americans tend to prefer clear, detailed agreements and expect commitments to be taken literally and seriously. But other cultures take a more flexible approach to agreements.
Results versus profits: Some cultures aren’t sticklers for rules or protocol. Others emphasize protocol above all else. If managers don’t talk about this, it can become problematic.
Attitudes toward appointments and deadlines: Americans expect strict adherence to deadlines; other cultures may not feel the same way.
Being “too direct”: Americans are known for being direct and are generally not concerned with “saving face” or avoiding conflict, but these can be big hang-ups in other cultures.