Communicating with a global workforce is a real challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teams are disrupted and many meetings that would have happened in person are now moving to virtual platforms. Social cues that might have helped bridge cultural divides are more tenuous than ever.
However, with a little preparation and savvy, communicators can help close the gaps between different cultures during this global event.
We caught up with Dean Foster, founder of DFA Intercultural Global Solutions and executive strategic consultant for Dwellworks Intercultural, to get his insights on how to navigate the pitfalls of digital, global communications during the COVID-19 crisis.
Here are some of his takeaways:
Ragan: Why is it important to use video and audio in virtual meetings?
Foster: From a cultural perspective, it’s important to understand that cultures can have very different communication styles, decision-making styles, negotiation styles, etc., all of which are revealed during meetings, both face-to-face and virtual.
Some cultures—for example, Japan, Korea, Indonesia (and many other Asian and African cultures)—choose to communicate more indirectly, preferring to imply what they mean rather than state their position clearly, directly and explicitly. On the other hand, there are many cultures, such as The Netherlands, the U.S., France, where the preferred communication style is to speak factually, explicitly and directly.
Both styles have advantages and disadvantages. In virtual communications with indirect, high-context-driven cultures, the words won’t carry all the meaning, and the real meaning of what they are trying to convey may lie more in their body language than the words that they speak.
(In fact, the words may actually intentionally carry misinformation designed to confuse, like saying “yes”, when they actually mean, “no.”)
With these cultures, it is essential to be able to read the body language for more clues as to what they are really trying to communicate, and the only way you get that in virtual meetings is with video, as well as audio.
Decision-making styles also differ, and it’s important to know who all the individuals at the table are, and their roles and position in the organization. Some cultures invite many people to the table, but they might not all have decision-making authority. (They may be there as advisors to the real decision-maker, who may or may not even be at the table.)
The only way you will know this is to be able to see who is actually at the table, and who isn’t—another reason for video.
Ragan: What are some common mistakes when conducting virtual meetings across cultures?
Foster: Fundamentally, the biggest mistake is the failure to understand that meetings can be run very differently in different cultures: Is the purpose of the meeting to make a decision (U.S., Germany, U.K.) or more to gather and share information (Japan, Korea). Is the decision-maker at the table? Who is empowered to make decisions? (In China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, the decision-maker may never appear; in Germany, France, Italy, the decision-maker will likely be at the table.)
How are decisions made? By the group in front of you, like in the U.K., U.S. and Canada, or by an individual, like in Indonesia, the Philippines and much of Latin America? How much information is expected to be discussed? In “risk-comfortable” cultures, like the U.S., Nigeria and India, decisions can be made with “just-enough” information, but in “risk-avoidant” cultures, you’ll need to be prepared to share the entire encyclopedia, and provide significantly greater amounts of highly detailed information before even a baby-step decision can be made.
In many cultures, such as Japan, where an entire team must decide what to do and pass their decision up to the manager (who almost always rubber-stamps the decision), in order to avoid a bad decision, the meeting is merely an opportunity to ask questions in order to be sure about what they recommend to their manager. Therefore, you can accelerate the meeting if you provide detailed information to the Japanese before the meeting even begins, and give them time to consult with each other and build consensus, and to ask you questions based on the information you already provided.
For cultures like the U.S., providing just a summary of the main points in order to reach a decision at the table is more important. In Japan, what you do between meetings is much more important than anything that happens at the table.
Ragan: What are some successful ways to engage with employees from different cultures?
Foster: The most important thing to do is do your cultural homework before the meeting, so that you understand the behaviors you will encounter. That gives you so much more leverage in the meeting, and can accelerate the success of the meeting, while avoiding culture-based misunderstandings.
Many cultures need to feel a high level of trust in order to be comfortable enough to share information with you, even when it is their job to do so. You need to be sure that you are receiving valid information, and the best way to do that is to put time and energy into developing good, trusting working relationships prior to your meeting.
Never assume that this trust is implicit, especially in cultures with a high need for trusting relationships, like Mexico (and much of Latin America), Gulf Arabian cultures and China. Building these important relationships is done in different ways for each of these cultures. [For example], in Latin America, it is important to build them around shared personal knowledge, family, social events and traditions. In Saudi Arabia, it is built through a slow process of network building with individuals who will take you to the decision-maker. In China, trust is built through a sense of obligation that people have with each other, either because you have already been tested and passed the test as a trusted business partner, or because of past experience with you and your company.
In all cases, it is important to reach out to build trust—and “simpatico,” as they say in Mexico—so that we can work together easily and successfully. This is often overlooked by cultures like the U.S., where trust is what happens after you successfully work together. Take the time upfront, not after-the-fact.
Ragan: What cultures might have more difficulty with “social distancing” and what can communicators do to help?
Foster: Cultures with a high need for personal trust often interact with each other much more physically: greetings and discussions can often involve lots of physical contact, touching, “close-talking”, etc.
What these cultures are actually looking for is indication of simpatico, or signs that you are dependable, trustworthy and worth doing business for the long-term. Social distancing in these cultures can often be a challenge; in this case, make sure that in all your communications (emails, conference calls, and [virtual] face-to-face) you reassure and inform them frequently with words (spoken, text and email) of how important and long-term you view your relationship with them and their company.
Leaving this out, or assuming it is understood, can be misunderstood as being insensitive and uncaring.