How to communicate with your global team across multiple cultures

- September 14, 2021 3 MIN READ
The Office/NBC
How do you develop a good relationship with your American inside sales team for growth?

Why does your Australian developer have difficulties in managing her Pakistani development team?

Is there a better way of negotiating terms with your Taiwanese quality assurance supervisor?

A common topic of conversation I’ve had with startup founders recently has been the challenge of managing their growing teams.

Thanks to continued lockdowns and extended border closures, founders are increasingly building out their teams by sourcing talent globally.

As we’ve gotten more practiced at working from home, founders have gained added confidence to fill skill shortages with talented individuals who are based overseas.

I’m familiar with several startups who have focussed their hiring efforts on attracting international applicants, who can work from their home countries, because of the closure of Australia’s international borders.

As the makeup of a startup’s team becomes increasingly diverse and global, so are the challenges of communicating clearly across the organisation.

When one founder told me the other day about how she found it difficult it to communicate with certain members of her overseas team, it reminded me of a course I took with Erin Meyer, a professor at INSEAD Business School, who wrote the book, The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business.

Meyer’s best-selling book provides insights on working effectively and sensitively with colleagues from around the world. By better understanding the backgrounds of team members, we can adjust our behaviour across various dimensions to improve outcomes.


Communication is key

A key dimension is communication. Building on a framework developed in the 1970s by anthropologist Edward Hall, low-context culture and high-context culture are ends of a continuum that describe how explicit messages are exchanged in a culture and the importance of context in communication.

In low-context culture, people assume a low level of shared reference points so good communication is explicit, simple, and clear. Words are more important that their surrounding cultural context. Low-context cultures tend to be individualistic, where tasks are more important that relationships. Time tends to be highly organised with the product being more important that the process.

In high-context cultures, people assume a high level of shared information so good communication is implicit, layered, and nuanced. There’s a greater use of metaphors, requiring people to read between the lines, non-verbal communication, and a strong sense of family and community. Relationships are more important than the task.


Understanding context

Time is open and flexibility with the process being more important and the product.

Anglo-Saxon-based cultures (including Australia, Canada, and the US) tend to be low-context, Latin-based cultures (including Argentina, Italy, and Mexico) tend to be mid-context and Asian cultures (including India, Indonesia, and Japan) tend to be high-context.

Given the differences outlined above, you may start to see how low-context people may think that high-context people are fuzzy and unclear, and high-context people may think that low-context people are condescending.

To navigate differences in culture, communication should be customised for the audience.

When communicating with people from high-context cultures, practice listening more carefully.

Listen to what is meant, not just what is said. Study body language more and ask open-ended questions. Give time for people to pause and reflect before moving to the next agenda item. Seek to clarify that they’ve understood your message before jumping to conclusions.

When communicating with people from low-context cultures, be transparent, clear, and specific as possible. Seek clarification if you don’t understand but don’t read between the lines. At the end of a meeting, review what was agreed so there’s a common understanding.

Ask as many questions as necessary to understand the context. These techniques can be used on Zoom meetings and conference calls.

By adapting your approach for different individuals based on their culture, you’ll be able to communicate more effectively.

Meyer believes that globalisation is causing more communication to be low-context. With many startup teams now consisting of individuals from different countries and backgrounds, there’s a shift towards the low-context end of the continuum.

That said, old habits die hard and to get the best out of your team, it pays to understand their culture and adjust your message accordingly, whether they’re from the US, Pakistan, or Taiwan.

* Benjamin Chong is a partner at venture capital firm Right Click Capital, investors in bold and visionary tech founders.