ArLyne's Diamonds

A running commentary of ideas

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hi Everyone:

Sorry to be sending this a little on the late side this month. The days and weeks just got away from me. It’s been an interesting September though. In addition to teaching a course I’ve never taught before (requiring tons of preparation – more about it later in this newsletter), I’ve also re-connected with old friends – and children of old friends – on Facebook. It is so enjoyable to visit with people I’ve known years ago and to reminisce about the good (and bad) times of yester-year. Too, some of my spare time was spent helping the President and board members of an association prepare for their annual meeting. So, it’s been busy!

Our greatest glory is not in never failing,but in rising up every time we fail. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Thanks for the quote Lawrence Reed)

Effective Workplace Communication: More than Language

I was recently the guest blogger on the blog, and my topic was to make the point that you had to clearly understand cultural differences when working with people from other lands – or even parts of the country. Here’s what they published, which is their edited version of what I actually wrote.

I am a displaced New Yorker living in California, often getting in trouble for being too direct and to the point. The cultural climate in which I was raised, the hustle-bustle business world of Manhattan, was managed by hard-driving, hard-working men (yes, they were all men in those days) who literally pulled themselves up by their boot straps. They said what they believed in the moment – and sometimes not too kindly.

I can remember a boss screaming at me, calling me a stupid idiot and other not-so-nice-words because of an accident I had. Yet, the next day he was all loving, supportive kindness. You knew where you stood with those bosses.

While still a kid in NYC, I worked for a company that had a manufacturing facility in the deep South. Every quarter or so, one of the senior vice presidents from our southern facility would come into New York and us “girls” would take turns being his secretary during his stay. We had an internal joke about him. We’d say: In New York, when you want to stop payment on a check, you write a one line letter to the bank, saying, ‘Dear Banker, please stop payment on check #101, $100.00 Thank you.’ In the South, when you want to stop payment on the same check, you write a two or three page letter to the banker, asking about his family, the weather, the latest sports events, and eventually you get to ask him to top payment on the check.

Low-context vs. high-context cultures

When I work with executives from other countries, I am reminded of these stories because there are so many cultural differences about how people interact with others. One general concept is the notion of low-context vs. high context countries.

In a low-context country, such as New York, most of USA, Israel, some of the Middle Eastern countries, Germany and a few other European countries, the object is to do business as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In a high-context country, like most of Asia, the South in the USA, and the Romantic cultures, it is far more important to establish relationship first, before moving on o finalizing the business. Relationship building happens in many ways, and varies from culture to culture. But in general, it is the honey that makes for doing business possible.

There’s also a second, not less important component to feeling comfortable in working together across cultural boundaries: How do people hear, and respond to, complaints or criticism? This, too, depends on cultural, age and gender elements.

For example, here in California, many managers tip-toe around employees, rather than addressing issues right-on. How does someone who has risen through the ranks in a work culture accustomed to more direct, in-your-face critique correct an employee who is used to a far less confrontational style?

Make yourself understood – the right way

How does, say, the new project manager from Germany suggest another way of doing something to a team member, while at the same time allowing that staff member to “save face”, as is of particular importance for so many people raised in Asian cultures?

Make no mistake about it: If you come from a culture and management style that prides itself on bullying others in public – chewing them out, telling them in no uncertain terms that they did it wrong, even earning bragging rights with your peers that way (in German: “Da habe ich den Meier aber mal richtig lang gemacht…”) – you really can get into trouble in most U.S. workplaces.

This kind of behavior will be perceived as unnecessary cruel and hostile. Instead of getting the intended reaction to the verbal whiplashing, at best some nasty passive-aggressive responses will be the result. At worst, the offending project manager is in for some serious face time with HRE or his or her immediate superior.

The cutting remarks may have been intended as a “2” or “3” on a scale of 1-10, but by employees or co-workers not accustomed to this direct and confrontational style, it can be perceived as a “30” or “40” on that scale of 1-10.

In short: it’s self-defeating. As a leader/manager, you would be harming your own credibility and the needs – bottom line – of your company.

Efficiency is nice, but real leadership is about effectiveness

When trying to bridge cultures and communication expectations, we also need to look at the difference in cognitive styles. Granted, a busy executive wants to get the job done – and get id done right. He or she doesn’t really want to bother with all the niceties necessary to salve the ego of fragile employees. Yet – yet – if you really want to get it done, you need to find a style that will work.

Peter Drucker said that it is far more important to be “effective” than “efficient.” Effectiveness, in this context, would suggest that leaders and managers learn new styles of communication that work better in the countries/cultures in which they are working.

Effectiveness can be achieved by understanding the cognitive styles, cultural styles, ego-needs and relationship needs of the people with whom you communicate. Especially in places as highly diverse as New York City or the Silicon Valley, a foreign accent, for example, should be the least of your worries (think “Aaarnold”).

Much more important is taking the time to learn the culture – at least as well as the language! – and you will be building a much more effective organization or team.

Managing Effective Virtual Meetings

To continue on the same theme, but in more general terms – I will be speaking on October 14th to a group of managers about meeting management with people in multiple locations – probably across the world.

It’s so important to look at the cultural differences in behavior and expectations. Some people will speak up and others will remain silent. Some attempt to monopolize the meeting while others consider it disrespectful to voice an opinion that might be contrary to that of the leader.

We often think of the basics, such as being respectful to the time differences, making sure there are interpreters of language, if needed, and of providing the latest greatest technology. But, that’s just the beginning. What about thinking more clearly about the purpose of the meeting? Is a virtual meeting really necessary, or would it be better to e-mail everyone requesting that they respond to the entire distribution list? What about a phone call? Or merely a memo offering the necessary information – having trained people in advance that your expectation is that they actually read the memos and follow through as required?

If you don’t waste staff time by too many meetings, the meetings you do have will be attended more positively. Oh, while I’m thinking of it, don’t allow people to “multi-task” during the meetings. Either come and pay attention, or don’t attend.

Too Nice Could Lead to Bad Decisions

It is so common place today for people to “go along to get along” and not stand up for what they know to be correct. In a recent example, I had a group of people participate in an exercise called “Desert Survival.” The first decision that a group, stranded in the desert 75 miles from anywhere had to make was whether to stay or walk out. In one of the teams, a team member had grown up in the desert and knew it would be impossible to survive attempting to walk out. Yet, he went along with his team members and so all other decisions that made during the exercise were wrong – because their starting premise was wrong.

In problem-solving – the most important aspect is defining the problem to be solve accurately. In meetings – the most important aspect is for people to take the risk to speak what they believe to be true and to be firm about their opinions, without being obnoxious.

Remember the movie, “Twelve Angry Men”? It was about a jury, 11 of whom believed the accused to be guilty and the final man was sure the accused was innocent. He didn’t quit. Over time he convinced the others that he was correct, by offering them clear and compelling evidence.

Don’t run from conflict. If you are a facilitator, don’t shut someone down who disagrees with the group. Sometimes – often – it is “the odd man out” who is correct.

Equity vs. Equality

Among other courses I’m teaching is the capstone graduate course for the Human resources (HR) degree. Our textbook: Huselid, M., Becker, B. E., & Beatty, R. W. (2005), The Workforce Scorecard. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. ISBN: 1-59139-245-4.

I love this book. It makes the point over and over again that all work in an organization should have a purpose – and that purpose should further the mission and objectives of the firm. They talk about A, B, & C positions in the firm and state that A positions are those that are most important to the firm’s success. These could be at any level in the organization, and anywhere in it. It is not necessarily the senior executives who are in A positions – contrary to possible belief. B positions are those that are necessary but not critical – they are the supportive positions, such as payroll, etc. C positions are probably far less necessary and firms should consider whether they need them or not, whether to outsource them or just get rid of them. Maybe all the levels of CYA record-keeping fall into this category.

In addition to A,B & C positions, there are A, B, and C players. C players should either be trained successfully or let go. The exiting process should be kind and reasonable, but should be executed. B players are necessary, some of them are potential A players and should be nurtured, mentored and trained accordingly. A players should not be ignored. They should be rewarded well, nurtured, and firms should work hard to do what’s necessary to provide a reason for them to stay loyal to the firm. Retention of A players is crucial to creating and maintaining high performance workplaces.

Human Resources (HR) has the responsibility to create a workforce strategy that takes these concepts into account, and enables management to execute the company’s strategy, mission and objectives. Performance Appraisal in the tradition manner are worthless – people need to be evaluated individually and frequently (I’ve written about this before and agree!). Reality is real. Excellence counts. Not everyone works equally well, and therefore not everyone deserves the same pay just to “be fair.”

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