In my sessions about working effectively across cultures I often hear the word “rude” in the conversation. I tell the story about when I came back to Thailand after an eight month break and my colleagues saw me for the first time. Here’s what they said:
“You gained weight, Vicki! You look like King Kong.”
I asked my US-based class, “Was that rude?” The answer was a resounding yes.
Then I challenge them. What is rude? Rude can only be defined in relative terms. Making direct eye contact (or asking about weight) may be respectful in one culture and offensive in another. While my being referred to as King Kong is a benign example, this need for relativity comes with much higher stakes in global teams or across a diverse workforce.
In a 2010 study, Vantage Partners examined the impact of culture on onshore/offshore relationships (between the US and India, for example). One of their major findings revealed a significant perception gap between the two sides.
“For most cultural dimensions, at least two-thirds of customers see some differences between their organization and their key offshore provider, whereas providers are much less likely to perceive significant differences with their customer.”
Two of the biggest challenges customers report with their providers in India are their perceived tendencies to communicate indirectly and avoid conflict. The survey showed, however, that the Indian team members do not perceive themselves that way, often stating that they communicate directly.
An offshoring contract is meant to achieve the highest possible value, but the same study (and many others like it) showed that culture affects the bottom line, with the impact being greater than 20% of the contract value in some cases.
How do we address these perception gaps? The word “direct” is also so relative. If you live in the US you might think you communicate directly compared to a colleague in Japan. Then you travel to the Netherlands for work and find colleagues there that speak far more “bluntly” than you.
While this challenge has no concrete “fix it” solution, I have found two strategies to be highly effective.
- Provide cultural education that includes both the central tendencies of a culture and the other possibilities. For example, many Western team members see their Indian colleagues as being averse to saying “no.” Truth exists in that, and many Indians would agree. Hesitance with “no” is a central tendency that is helpful in navigating our work together. Then we would explore the other possibilities, such as younger Indians who would not hesitate to say “no” to an unrealistic timeline.
- Get specific with communication. Team members should plan and discuss how they want to communicate. For example, rather than saying “I want you to be more open with me,” provide a definition of “open”, as well as the best channels, formats, and tools for communicating with you. Teams should agree on how they will address conflict, how they will deliver bad news about deadlines, and so on. Colleagues should also ask each other how their communication style is perceived by the other.
Perception gaps are always present on a global team and within a diverse workforce. The biggest challenge is that they remain largely unexplored by the people involved, therefore their impact is greater than it needs to be.
Let’s get talking about those gaps! Then let’s build a bridge between them.
What perception gaps have you experienced across cultures?