Thursday, March 12, 2009 by Dave Blum

Jack walks into his weekly team meeting with a spring in his step.  Over the last few days, he’s been developing a plan that he’s sure will save the group thousands of dollars in time and budget.  He can’t wait to share it all with his teammates, receive their constructive feedback, and start taking steps towards implementation.
Things don’t go the way Jack expected.

Mary and George — from the Philadelphia office are in favor of Jack’s plan, or at least, they’re open to exploring it further.  Juan and Francois — from the Europe office — take a different tack, vigorously and thoroughly criticizing the plan from all angles.  With sagging shoulders, Jack leaves the meeting wondering, “Why are the Europeans so mean-spirited and negative?  If they didn’t like my plan, they could at least have been nicer about it.”

If you’ve ever been in a cross-cultural team environment, the above scenario probably looks a bit familiar.  Different cultures have different communication styles — failing to recognize (and expect) this can lead to misunderstandings, miscommunication and a breakdown of trust.

The irony is that Juan and Francois don’t hate Jack’s plan.  In fact, they like it quite a bit!  They simply felt that by scrutinizing it carefully, they would make the plan stronger.  In an article by Maureen Rabotin in Training and Development magazine entitled “Reading the World”, the author explains this phenomenon as follows:

“The European perspective is that by exhaustively trying to find fault with the project or proposal, they have done their “due diligence” and have eliminated the possibility of failure. If it is the case that their several attempts to find flaws are unsuccessful, and the presenter is consistent in her view of the project, then the proposal is validated and has been properly vetted. The European team will then most likely give their full buy-in.”

What does this mean for cross-cultural teammates?

It means asking questions when you don’t approve of a certain behavior.  Being curious.  Avoiding assumptions.  Nine times out of ten, the offending party thinks they’re being helpful, according to their own cultural standards.  Meetings are like treasure hunt clues; you can give up when you’re stumped, or you can try to “decode” the situation. It’s usually worth the effort.