Culture Clash

Closing gaps between different worlds is crucial to building team trust. By Mary Brandel

Anyone who has ever worked on a global IT team has a culture-clash story to tell. For Rick Davidson, CIO at Manpower Inc., it was the time he and a male co-worker were waiting for an elevator in Japan, along with two Japanese female colleagues. When the elevator arrived, the men looked at the women as if to signal for them to enter, while the women -- following their own culturally embedded rules of hierarchy that defer to men, especially male guests -- simply looked back at the men. "The doors opened and closed, and no one got in the elevator," Davidson says. "When we realized what happened, we agreed to a compromise -- they would enter first on the way up, and we would enter first on the way down."

And Fred Danback, vice president of global technology at a global financial services firm in Stamford, Conn., will never forget the time he started a meeting with his company's new Swiss acquisition by professing his two-year vision for the corporate IT infrastructure. When it was the Swiss staffers' turn, they not only presented their own technology plan, but they also backed it up with slides and architectural diagrams. "They probably already had the impression that Americans were an arrogant lot that would try to come in and steamroll them, and I probably met that expectation," he says.

Then there's the Indian firm that recently sent a greeting card to co-workers worldwide with the image of a swastika, an ancient and sacred symbol in that country. "Many people went ballistic," says Gopal Kapur, founder and president of the Center for Project Management in San Ramon, Calif. In fact, it took five managers hours of telephone conversations and many e-mails to calm the waters. The work of 14 international team members came to a halt for more than 11 days, delaying the project and costing thousands of dollars.

From the humorous to the offensive, from startling to subtle, there are an infinite number of misunderstandings that can arise when people from different cultures merge on a project team. And while some of these misunderstandings are obvious and surface quickly so they can be resolved on the spot, others are more difficult to detect, resulting in long-term trouble, like endemic mistrust among team members.

"You need to get beyond the superficial layer of what we think we know," says Lu Ellen Schafer, founder of Global Savvy, an international training and consulting firm in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's important to understand what's underneath the surface -- why your e-mails aren't being answered, why people are telling us 'yes' when they mean 'no,' why there's silence on the phone during a teleconference."

Although the gaps can't be avoided completely, it's crucial to raise awareness of the cultural divide to build at least part of the bridge before you try to cross it.

Separated by Language

Because English is the international language of business, many misunderstandings are bred by the use of idioms, acronyms, slang and other sayings that are culturally specific. "You can imagine sitting in a meeting, and someone says, 'Give me a heads up when issues arise,'" Schafer says. "Everybody says, 'OK,' but when you ask them if they know what 'heads up' is, they say no."

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