A recent project has prompted me to focus this month on the efficiencies of teleconferences. Lack of agendas, side conversations, audible background noises, late attendees, accent and language difficulties; alongside poorly facilitated calls that seem to go in circles are just some of the everyday teleconference challenges.
Although teleconferences are not a new phenomenon somehow we tolerate the inefficiencies and frustrations that they entail. Why is this? Over time we become unconscious and unmindful of the bad habits and irritations that ‘creep in’. We often accept them as ‘normal’ and for the most part we ‘switch off’ and allow apathy and stagnation to set in, without us possibly even realising it.
For many global project teams teleconferences are the most common meeting format. They are a critical mode of communication where key decisions are made and everyday production, innovative and creative ideas are thrashed out. Something worth reminding ourselves of is that the success of teleconferences directly impact overall project outcomes, timelines and ultimately budgets.
Here are some simple reminders of things to be aware of when facilitating and participating in culturally dispersed teleconferences:
Ensure that the agenda has been circulated at least 24 hours prior to the meeting. It is particularly useful for those in other locations whose native language is not the language that the meeting is being conducted in. This provides all participants an opportunity to plan what they will say or questions that they want to propose.
Be mindful. When most of the participants are in the same room it can be difficult for the remote participants to engage in the conversation. They are not privy to the same group/room dynamic.
Remember that in some cultures people wait to be invited to speak rather than speak up whenever they have something to contribute. Be specific and invite people to speak at various intervals.
Ensure everyone identifies who they are before they begin speaking. Don’t assume that everyone knows each other. It is not uncommon for offshore project teams to have new staff joining the team at different times. Maintain the practice of introductions at all meetings.
Use diagrams and visual aids where possible. They can be of great benefit as an alternative mode of demonstration and explanation, especially for offshore teams.
If you are having difficulty understanding language, accents, dialects or tone, speak up. Let people know. Chances are that they are having difficulty understanding you also.
Don’t confuse silence with agreement. Take the time to ask each person one by one to give their opinion or share their concerns before making a consensus decision.
An interesting study recently released ‘Australia’s International Business Survey 2015’ had some key findings supporting the case for increased cultural intelligence (CQ). The findings provide insight into the nature, needs, concerns and future plans of the overall Australian international business community from an organisational perspective. Over 1200 Australian companies were included in the survey, from 19 industry sectors operating in 114 international markets.
Some of the CQ highlights were:
Local language, culture and business practices were sited as the main barriers from an Australian perspective when doing business in overseas markets.
64% identified cultural differences in building long-term business relationships as challenging.
63% identified cultural differences as challenging when negotiating across borders.
58% identified cultural differences as challenging when making buying decisions.
47% identified language barriers as challenging.
93% identified face-to-face meetings with overseas customers as important. It was considered. one of the single most important market development activities.
While these findings are not surprising, they do indicate a strong case for earmarking CQ as an area of significant importance. With these insights at hand the challenge for organisations is to truly appreciate the importance of navigating culture and local business practices, improving soft skills for building relationships, cross-cultural communication and negotiating in the most effective manner.
‘Decoding Talent’ is a recent study conducted by The Boston Consulting Group on the global workforce of today. It is an interesting study in terms of decoding and understanding the emerging global attitudes toward work and a global overview of what makes for a contented employee. Over 200,000 people from 189 countries participated in the survey.
One of the findings that I found most interesting was that on a global scale there is greater emphasis on intrinsic rewards rather than compensation.
The top 4 rankings for happiness on the job were:
Appreciation for your work
Good relationships with colleagues
Good work-life balance
Good relationships with superiors
One of the key most basic and crucial factors in these top 4 findings is the requirement for high levels of trust, sophisticated communication skills and strong relationships. For any global organisation this indicates that there is a very real demand for cultural intelligence across all aspects of the organisation, particularly in terms of leadership.
Understanding these preferences is key to talent retention and maximising the current workforce. Some questions that this research should pose for leaders are:
How do you provide culturally appropriate feedback and appreciation of work to individuals or teams that you may manage remotely?
How do you as a leader foster the establishment of good relationships with your cross-border teams?
How do you monitor these relationships, enhance them and aid them when there is conflict and misunderstandings?
How do you manage the expectations of a good work/life balance for your globally dispersed teams? For example if a team consists of people based in New Zealand, China and the U.S the perceptions of work/life balance will be diverse.
How are relationships established and maintained with superiors in your organisation? How do your leaders manage their cultural preferences for communicating with subordinates when they are leading across cultures?
Studies such as this are a great source of useful data to begin reflecting on current strategies, particularly in terms of talent development, retention, recruitment and key motivators. Some of the insights that are generated extend to what are the future challenges, are current operating models and resources adequate to cope with current and future demands.
I read an interesting article of an experience shared by Erin Meyer in the Harvard Business Review ‘Cultural Coaching – Knowing when to shut-up. Erin was working as a cultural coach, her assignment was to prepare a French couple for an expat posting in China with the support of Bo Chen, a Chinese country expert.
You would expect a cultural coach to be practised enough to adapt to an appropriate communication style and to instinctively generate a culturally inclusive environment. The article highlights that in fact no matter how culturally aware we think we are, we are all fallible. It is easy to slip unconsciously back to communication styles that are native to us.
Erin’s intentions as she ran the session was for Chen to engage in the conversation, by stepping in when appropriate to offer his thoughts and knowledge; however, she found herself getting frustrated as he continued to sit in silence. It was not until she invited his opinion did he begin to speak. At this moment she realised that it wasn’t that Chen didn’t want to contribute but that he respectfully didn’t want to interrupt the discussion. Erin neglected to articulate her expectations or how she wanted to manage the flow of the session to Chen.
The dynamics of communication are culturally bound. We need to constantly have our ‘cultural antennas’ up so that we can be responsive to the connotations of silence and the subtle undercurrents of speech. There can be many culturally bound reasons for silence and a lack of participation. The cultural perceptions of contributing spontaneously in a formal conversation can be interpreted as rude, disrespectful and arrogant in some cultures; while in others a lack of contribution can be perceived as an absence of opinion and knowledge and non-engagement in the topic of conversation.
As Erin demonstrated in her article, she had the experience to see past her own frustrations and ask herself why Chen was – from her perspective – disengaged from the discussion. She considered the silence from another perspective, rather than making the all too easy assumption that he had nothing to contribute. Without this insight, there could have been another outcome – possibly ending with Erin fundamentally misunderstanding the abilities for Chen, not to mention a less fulfilling experience for the clients.