Communication and Expectations

We tend to expect others to behave as we do and are either uncomfortable or punitive when they don’t.  We rarely take into account that people come from many backgrounds and cultures and the “social” behaviors they were taught at home are not necessarily the same as those you were taught. 

Realizing how this effects people in meetings insprired me to write the following article, which was published in Tech Week back in 2000.  I’m copying it here for your consideration.  ArLyne

“We decided to put a kitty in the room and fine anyone who didn’t speak out during meetings” said an acquaintance of mine who has a Ph.D. from MIT and is an executive in a national company.

I gulped!  As tactfully as I could, I told him how awful this suggestion was and how it would backfire.  You can’t force cultural or social changes with embarrassment and fines.

When I questioned Doug (name changed to protect the unaware,) I learned that the meetings involved a group of engineers in a free wheeling debate about product features and process development.
It was really important to solicit the honest opinions and creative ideas of each and every member of this carefully selected group of technical professionals.
But, the participants came from all over the world, including from cultures where disagreement and seeming criticism of a senior member of the team (similar to disagreeing with an elder) was horribly rude.  No amount of threatening, teasing, or even cajoling is going to change this belief.   Beliefs of this nature can only be changed by careful consideration to the values and behaviors that exist and by gently working with the individuals to modify them.
Another example comes to me from an American woman of Chinese ancestry.  As a manufacturing manager in a high tech company, she had been sent, by her employer to China to set up new operational processes in an existing manufacturing facility.
After a few weeks she came back to California screaming “these Chinese people are all liars.  You think they are agreeing with a decision you’ve made and they turn around and go back to what they were doing before agreement was reached.”  Clearly this American manager had no idea how to build consensus and reach a binding decision in China. 
Had she known to involve the Chinese leaders privately to get them to persuade those who look up to them of the changes, she would have received acceptance.  Had she recognized that disagreement with authorities is in direct violation of cultural rules of politeness and respect, she would not have tried to solicit opinions in a group meeting.
An American educated CEO of a Korean company based in California told me recently that he was unable to create brainstorming sessions in Korea (or even in California with those recently emigrated here) because the structure of the language in his country did not allow for polite disagreement with those in authority.
Even when he brought Americans to Korea to shill at these meetings, he was unsuccessful at encouraging his Korean managers to participate freely in discussions.  In spite of the respect and admiration his employees held for him, this CEO could not break the cultural barriers without a lot of additional hard work – over time.
One of my local corporate clients was recently purchased by a French company.  Of great frustration to the existing California management is the change in the way decisions are made.  The California group are accustomed to holding committee meetings with the relevant people, arguing points and then reaching and implementing decisions quickly.
In the more traditional French company, information and ideas go up the chain of command.  Decisions come back from the top, with rules for implementation, after much time has passed.
A semiconductor company in Silicon Valley was purchased by another French company.  Mutiny seems to be the state of affairs.  The California group ignores the mandates from the French group blaming the differences on the fact that the French group doesn’t understand the semi-conductor industry.  That’s true.  Also true is the vastly different management and decision making styles of the two companies.
One final example: In several dot.com start-ups decisions are made willy-nilly by anyone who feels like it without regard for opinions or consequences for those in other groups.  Each excited employee thinks he or she knows everything there is to know about the topic.  Decisions are made from the bottom, with no regard for the full scan of objectives.
All of these examples have at their root problems with the difference in communication, decision-making, management style, and expectations resulting from age and/or cultural differences.
Since our High Tech communities are comprised of bright, talented people of all ages from all over the world, significant thought and attention needs to be given to group process, communication, and decision-making.  These are all “soft skills” and are often ignored in technical education.
At the very least:

  Workshops designed to teach the cultural differences in communication, decision-making, brainstorming, working with authority figures, management, etc. need to be taught at all levels  throughout these companies.
 

 Meeting leaders, upper managers and facilitators need especially to learn about these cultural differences.  They need to learn to respect and honor the traditions and mores of other cultures. 
 

 Group participation preparatory workshops should be offered to people from other cultures.
 

 Practice sessions in topics of less consequence among peer groups should be created and supported by management.
 

 Other methods such as private conversations, working with the informal but much respected leadership of those from the culture(s) involved, and written communication, need to be allowed. Indeed they should be encouraged and supported both before and after these meetings.
 

 Most importantly, each company must take responsibility for developing, articulating, teaching and reinforcing its own cultural values and mores regarding group meeting participation, consensus building, decision-making and the management of people.
 

by ArLyne M. Diamond, Ph.D.
Dr. Diamond can be reached at ArLyneD@aol.com
or visit her website @ DiamondAssociates.net
 

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