Relationships matter: communicating across cultures

Relationships matter: communicating across cultures
October 1, 2012 Beth Nyland

My favorite place to work is home. Right now I can stare out over my laptop to see yellow, orange and red leaves dropping from the maples in our backyard, creating a crunchy crash pad under the kids’ swing set. There is no place like home.

But some of my favorite colleagues live and work in faraway places I may never see. One good friend, Bruna Gomes, emailed me recently from Sao Paulo, Brazil. She and I spent several years in communications leadership roles for Unilever. We met face to face just once, but kept up professionally and personally via instant messaging, email, and occasional phone conversations. Now, post-Unilever, we “see” each other on LinkedIn and Twitter. Sometimes I have to copy and paste her posts into Google Translator, converting her Portuguese to my English. It works.

Bruna writes for an internal communications blog called Comunicacao com Funcionario. Preparing a post on managing projects across cultures, she asked if I would offer insights. I was glad to help, and thrilled to see it published online this morning.

If you’re fluent in Portuguese, you can read Bruna’s post by clicking here. Or, if English is your language of choice, stay right here for the following translation.

English Translation from Portuguese Comunicacao com Funcionario:

In a recent post here on the blog, Vivi Mansi wrote that good intention, willingness to establish dialogue, and engagement with people are still the best strategies for efficient leadership communication. The following interview shows that this emphasis on what is human is also crucial when communication involves people from very different cultures and languages in a same project.

We invited American consultant Beth Nyland to speak to us about intercultural communications. Beth led many complex and global communication projects in her career at companies like Accenture, Watson Wyatt, Sears, and Unilever. Now leading her own communications consultancy, Spencer Grace, she still manages similar projects and shares some of her learnings here:

1. What are some of the steps you take when preparing to lead an intercultural comms project?

Without question, the most important step is assembling a skilled team of people who understand and represent the various cultures.

For example, in my work on a change initiative that touched all countries in the Americas, we enlisted communicators from Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. Most of them contributed to the project part-time, alongside other duties in their local markets. We sought communicators who are well-connected with local leaders and employees, and who possess exceptional skills in writing, planning, and producing communications in their native language. English fluency was important as well, as that was the language we used to conduct team business and meetings.

Maybe even more important, I looked for people with the courage and passion to advocate for their culture, their language, and other particulars of their local environment. I depended on each representative to boldly offer ideas for what works—and what doesn’t—in their part of the company and their part of the world. I also counted on them to report promptly and honestly about feedback they received, so we could adapt and respond as needed, not just locally but in other geographies as well.

2. What were some of the difficulties you found while leading intercultural projects? How did you overcome them?

One challenge is to establish rapport among team members who work in locations and cultures so far apart. These people may need to move mountains together, connected only by phone, email and instant messaging. If possible, the team should have the budget, time and commitment to meet face to face at least once. If travel is out of the question, even videoconferencing helps people build personal relationships.

However you manage to assemble the team, invest time in getting to know each other. When gathering a team for the first time—even if via virtual meeting—I ask each team member in advance to prepare a 60-second introduction, supported by a PowerPoint slide showing photos of the person doing what he or she loves. In a team of 10 people, this take just 10 minutes (maybe 15 to 20 if you are open to laughter and chatter). What a great use of time! When I know that Monica in Buenos Aires loves Indian food, running marathons, and spending weekends with her two-year-old nephew, I have a window into who she is, and I care more deeply about succeeding with her in our work together.

Of course the team will face other obstacles: finding fast, affordable translation services; assembling reliable distribution lists; overcoming limited bandwidth in the corporate IT network; breaking through the clutter of so many messages from so many sources; securing approvals from multiple masters; achieving world-class results with a limited budget …

But if the team members know one another and feel a personal connection to each other and their shared goals, they will be more effective at working through challenges together.

3. Some aspects of communication—meanings, intent, emotions—may be difficult to convey due to language and cultural barriers. How can an intercultural communicator minimize this issue when crafting messages that will be shared with a multicultural audience?

I appreciate that you phrased the question “minimize the issue,” because we cannot really make it go away.

My approach is to keep core, written messages short and simple, free of cliches and humor—and then share those messages with an intercultural team of leaders and communicators who are responsible to deliver them personally to each local market.

One useful tool is a monthly email outlining key messages. The email includes brief instructions to the recipients (please use the following points in your presentations, discussions and messages this month); a request for feedback (let me know if you have questions or suggestions for next month’s messages); and three to five concise paragraphs, in bullet point form, that summarize what people should know.

Before such a communication is released, the messages must be approved. To address cultural differences in interpretation of a message, I suggest adding “cultural reviewers” to your process—a colleague from each language, for example, to review the message for sensitivities and nuances unique to his or her culture. Just know that reviews and approvals can be even more challenging and time-consuming in an intercultural environment. So establish strong rapport with the leaders and colleagues whose support you need, allow ample time for input, and be specific in your requests for feedback (we will release these messages on Tuesday next week, so I need your response by 4 pm Eastern Time on Monday).

4. In your experience as a communications lead in intercultural projects, what are the most important skills for a comms professional in this role?

Beyond the usual gifts of organization and communication that are essential in any of our projects, here are a few I’ve come to appreciate when working across cultures:

  • Courage: to speak up, to try new things, to take risks with technology, to meet new people, to ask for clarification, to admit that you don’t know all the answers
  • Curiosity: to learn how others do things, to invent new methods, to explore new territory, to know new people
  • Respect: for other views, other methods, and—most of all—other people (particularly those who are not like yourself
  • Authenticity: to be yourself and share who you are, regardless of the medium—face to face, phone, Skype, Live Meeting or WebEx, instant messaging, email (we have to know and use them all!)
  • Connections: not just knowing who does what, who sits where, and how to reach them, but what motivates people and how you can get the best results from them
Finally, I believe having a sense of humor is far more important than knowing multiple languages. Other people can help you find the words, but it takes a special leader/communicator to help others find the fun in challenging work assignments. Humor helps!

Comment (1)

  1. Bruna Gomes 12 years ago

    Hi Beth! This is great, thank you again for taking the time to offer your insights.

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