More often than not, business teams today are multicultural and remotely managed employees or freelancers are often international. Even when startup founders do their best to prevent language barriers, miscommunications can occur that create unnecessary challenges.
At Hubstaff, we work with a diverse team of development and marketing professionals from around the globe. In my experience, sticking to these four best practices will help maintain a harmonious working relationship with individuals from a different cultural background than your own.
Be Clear About Your Expectations and Assume Nothing
Management practices differ widely across cultures, as do expectations about feedback, checking in, asking questions and the overall hierarchy within an organization. Different cultures also have different expectations about the amount of passion or energy with which a person should communicate; how to deliver criticism; and whether deadlines are fixed or mutable. What seems like passionate disagreement to them might seem aggressive to you, or a frustrating lack of updates could be the employee’s way of respecting your authority as boss by not pestering you.
Be prepared to explain things you’ve always taken for granted. It’s true that employees should also be responsible for learning the norms of your corporate culture, but trying to meet them halfway will probably result in higher retention and engagement. Invest a little bit in learning about business culture in their country of origin and their own cultural assumptions, and ask them how they compare to working with someone from your own culture. If they come from a culture where saving face is important, consider delivering feedback in private. If local business culture where they’re from offers more flexibility in meeting deadlines than what you can afford to give on a project, make it absolutely clear that there is no leeway in getting a deliverable ready (or consider setting a deadline a few days earlier than when it actually needs to be done).
Stick to a Neutral Language and Neutral Subjects
One of the most important culturally determined variables in business management is the appropriate use of language. Humor, sarcasm and criticism are all very different depending on each set of culturally determined beliefs; so are religion and faith. Business decisions, development and user issues are all universal. They demand your team’s focus no matter employees’ personal differences.
That having been said, it’s often not practical for one manager to have to adopt a different tone for each member of a mixed-culture group. Imagine a Skype meeting for a team not unlike my own, with members from Turkey, Poland, Pakistan and the U.S. I can’t be simultaneously straightforward while also couching negative statements within positive ones. Catering to all cultures leads to mixed messages, a sort of communicational schizophrenia.
Use as neutral language as possible, sticking to the facts and using “I” statements when you can. It’s also important to prepare each person for your management style as a leader during the onboarding process. Always check to make sure everyone understands your message after meetings.
Be Aware of Holidays
If you’re from the U.S., you wouldn’t ordinarily expect to have to work on Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day. You should know which holidays around the world affect your team, whether or not they’re based in the same physical office as you. Don’t expect your remote employees to be available on important holidays like Yom Kippur, Ramadan, Chinese New Year, etc. If you’re all physically located in the same office, be willing to give them time off to be with their families or to fulfill their religious obligations. Don’t try to force them to work on what might be the equivalent of an important holiday for you.
Make the Effort to Understand
Employees will appreciate it if they see you’re making an effort to understand them, even if you don’t change your management style. In a physical office, they might be in the minority, which can lead to feelings of isolation. Establishing a rapport helps; employees are more invested in staying where they feel that their perspective is valued. On our remote team, I make an effort to talk to my developers about what they do for fun, and I encourage them to take vacations and time off. We also sometimes play video games in our off time together, and laugh at innocent things I know won’t offend them.
The marketplace for talent in business is global, even for small businesses. Not only do employees from other cultures add value through work, but their differences can also add important perspective that can help your business adapt to changing market conditions. While employees shouldn’t expect their employers from different cultures to bend over backwards, employers might find that a little understanding and rapport can go a long way towards making these employees feel welcome, increasing both their engagement and the likelihood that they’ll continue working for you.