lundi, octobre 30, 2006

Intercultural Management: Managing teams across cultures and borders (III): A reader's comments turns into an interesting discussion!

Roger L. posted an exhaustive comment October 30th on the post Intercultural Management (II) that I wanted to bounce off on and discuss. As that is apparently not possible to do, it appears in toto below, interspersed with our comments and reactions.

Thank you, Roger, for opening up the first discussion on the Zone!


This is a good story, and it illustrates some sound management and organizational principles. But I think you're placing too much of the blame on the boss, Benoit, and not enough on Steve.

As far as the initial email (sent on Wednesday) is concerned, the "when" is adequately defined by Benoit when he says that he wants his report by the end of the following week. Any responsible subordinate would know, or at the very least assume, that this means by Friday, latest, and would therefore try to get the report out by Thursday, or Friday morning (boss' time). I think that when you criticize Benoit's email by asking "WHEN: What is ‘end of next week’? What day, what time, in what time zone?" you are putting too much of the onus on the boss to be overly specific, when there's no need to be. (Of course, if he did want it by, say, Thursday morning at 9:00am his time, and didn't say so, then he would be at fault for not getting it on time. But he didn't, so the subordinate can safely conclude that the deadline is what I said above.)
If this were a purely US + colocated team+ they knew each other, I would agree. However, this is not the case. Time, timing and "end of the week" can mean very different things in different cultures. End of the week for Benoit for example can mean Thurday at 9 AM, 6PM, sometime Friday -- or even early the following week in fact. If the first, that meant mid-week for Steve. I have worked with teams who encountered serious project delays for things as similar and seemingly inoccuous as this.

You also criticize Benoit for not being specific enough in his request, in that he only says that he wants a "status report" on Widget 913, without further details. I disagree. A "give me a status report" message can admittedly be somewhat vague, but if it appears that way to the subordinate, then that person should just put him/herself in the boss' shoes, imagine what is of import to the boss, and do the best under the circumstances. If the most important points are covered (e.g., production schedule, cost or customer issues, any other problems) then chances are the boss will be happy with the report.
Steve does not know Benoit. He has no clue what will please him or not, what his standards are. His level of involvement in project Widget 913 is narrow in scope, he does not have a full view of it. A status report can be for internal use, or Benoit may have to present it to HIS boss, or it may be presented to outside interest holders. Even the format of the report (text document, phrased, bullet pointed, Powerpoint presentation etc...) can have an impact on how the information is received depending on the audience.

A GVT manager is the driving force (or should be) behind the team's developing its own culture and best practices. The manager needs to inform, motivate, reward, observe and mediate about twice as much as usual. GVTs in general need about twice the amount of communication as colocated teams.

Benoit here is not a bad manager per se. He shows some lacunae typical in one who is not used to managing interculturally and internationally. He has not yet acquired the optimal reflexes that will make him a great manager and his team a successful and motivated one.

As far as blaming Benoit for not informing the other team members of his request is concerned, that may be considered an oversight, and not the best practice in a perfect world, but any problem caused by this could easily be overcome by Steve forwarding the email himself to his two colleagues. (More on this later.)

Lastly, you define as a problem the fact that Benoit did not define each team member's responsibilities. You say: "What is each of them supposed to do (i.e.: who does what?)? Who holds overall responsibility?...." Yes, if Benoit had the inclination, he could have written more on those topics, but it seems to me that by sending his email to Steve, he more or less put him in charge of gathering the information and generating the report, and Steve should have assumed as much.
Indeed, I agree with your analysis. However, there is another member of the team, a senior one, who is of yet another culture and one particularly sensitive to signs (and slights) related to seniority and status. In this situation, Benoit put Steve between a rock and a hard place. None of the parties (Benoit, Steve, Günter) perfomed optimally: cultural sensitivities got in the way as they are wont to do with humans.

So, all in all, I think that Benoit could have sent more details on the "who, what, when, and why" but I don't think he deserves as much of the blame that you place on him in your example.

Indeed, I would blame Steve the most for the ensuing problems. The first thing he should have done, having noted that Benoit did not copy the other two team members on his email, would be to send them the email himself. He should have written something like "I just got this from Benoit, and I'm sharing it with you in case he didn't send you separate copies. Let's talk tomorrow morning. I'll call you." In other words, he should have immediately gone into action, assuming that being the only recipient of Benoit's request gave him some degree of authority and responsibilty regarding the status-report project, Instead, like some somnolent dork, he wastes a whole day just waiting to hear from Gunter, for reasons I cannot fathom. (Actaully, he probably just freaked out and froze.) He then emails Benoit for clarification, but getting no response, he gets stressed and starts to send emails to his colleagues that reflect his anger and frustration, and that (rightfully so) starts to piss them off. Matters get worse, with Gunter dragging his feet on getting Steve the needed information, and Michelle withdrawing as far as she can from this boondoggle. I don't blame them. With a fool like Steve apparently running things, I would not be too cooperative either.
While I agree Steve could and should have been more proactive with his colleagues, I feel you are being rather rough on him at the end of your paragraph. In addition, the email you wrote for him is far from foolproof: "Let's talk tomorrow morning, I'll call you". Here we go with the times again! Are Michelle (+ 6 hours) and Günter (+ 7 hours) supposed to conclude that Steve is going to call them at 9 AM THEIR time (ie at midnight that day California time?) or at HIS time (ie at 6 and 7 PM respectively their time, after they have left work?). Neither option is credible and the declaratory statement can be ill perceived as it does not take into account the mere possibility that they might be unavailable even if the time zone problem were non-existant.

You conclude, and rightfully so, that a source of all the problems is that "Before this episode, this GVT suffered from a lack of team identity and shared culture. They had never met as a group nor determined collectively the best practices they needed to respect in order to work effectively together."

As a result "At this juncture, this GVT is mired in petty unspoken conflict that, if left unresolved, will continue to plague its performance and that of each of its members. Mutual trust and respect needs to be restored."

You're right. If a team is formed within an organization for a project or goal-specific purpose, it would be pretty silly if they didn't make an effort to meet, or at least to hold conference calls from time to time in order to get to know each other. (Benoit, as the boss, is definitely at fault here, if this was never done, and he never encouraged them to do it.)
Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Bringing together a team whose members are spread out across the globe is a very costly thing to do: costly in terms of finances and costly in terms of work-time loss. Corporations are often reluctant to invest in that critical, essential, all-important first meeting unless they have already experienced the direct and indirect costs of a delayed, unsatisfactory or failed project and come to realize how determinative face time can be. Conference and video conference calls are most successful when participants have already met and developed a relationship and when the subject at hand is specifically defined.

On the other hand, I think you need to emphasize an issue that your story illustrates, which is "communication." I think that if I had to boil down your example to its essentials, I would say that the primary cause of the initial confusion and the subsequent problems was the method of communication, mainly EMAILS!
Indeed! And when one realizes that over 70% of a communication is contained in vectors other than the words (vocal, verbal, non-verbal), one begins to grasp how important word choice and expression are in an email, particularly between people who do not know each other and are from different cultures.

Benoit started it with his vague one, Steve expected one from Gunter that he never got, Benoit never answered Steve's, and Steve sent nasty ones to Gunter and Michele.
No, Steve did not send nasty emails to his colleagues. His disappointment and frustration will come out surely in other ways later on though.

Wouldn't it have been easier if Benoit had just called Steve at the outset and answered any questions Steve might have had, on the spot? Wouldn't it have been more effective for Steve to call Gunter and/or Michele (a conference call perhaps? --not a bad or a mad thing to do) to share Benoit's message, discuss the outline of the report, and agree on who would do what?
Indeed again! And as team manager and initiator of this request for a report, it was up to Benoit to facilitate that. As a GVT leader, that is a key part of his job.

I could say more, but suffice it to say that I have seen untold damage being done through emails, when verbal communication would have been just as easy, and much more effective. But, restricting myself to your example, I would enunciate one important principle regarding communications via email: If there's any doubt that the recipient might not understand what you say, or might need more information, either communicate verbally in the first instance, or at the very least conclude the email with "If you need further information or have any questions, call me"!!!

The phone still exists, and has not been made obsolete by emails. Let's not forget that.

dimanche, octobre 29, 2006

Images et icônes en voie d'extinction

Ce post dépasse un peu les frontières des sujets que nous traitons habituellement.

Juste un peu….

Souvent, quand on pense à un pays, on lui associe une image, une odeur, une ambiance. Quand je pense à mon Vietnam natal, par exemple, j’ai tout de suite l’odeur des tonneaux de nuoc mam (sauce de poisson) qui macéraient près du port quand j’étais petite ou des énormes mangues qui embaumaient les étals de Ben Thanh, le marché central.

A l’annonce que le tabac serait interdit dans les cafés, bars et restaurants à partir de 2008, j’ai ressenti une tristesse que je n’arrivais pas à articuler avec précision.

Manifestement, je n’étais pas seule à pressentir que nous allions perdre quelque chose. Art Buchwald, journaliste et chroniqueur américain, y a consacré un article dans le Washington Post, traduit et publié dans le No. 834 de Courrier International.

Il écrit :

En France, dans les cafés, les fumeurs avaient besoin d’avoir une cigarette à la bouche pour commencer à discuter. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Pablo Picasso et Alexandre Calder ont trouvé toutes leurs idées dans la fumée qu’ils exhalaient….Il est difficile d’imaginer la France sans tabac…. Un ami français, Henri Fouquet, a dit un jour : « Quand les Américains ont arrêté de fumer, leur culture a décliné. Il va se passer la même chose en France. »

Sa missive fait but : je n’arrive pas à imaginer la perte des cafés enfumés remplis d’étudiants, d’intellos ou de collègues de travail qui font pause autour d’un café, d’une fine ou d’un demi pour discuter à bâtons rompus sans compter le temps qui passe, sans que le serveur les presse à partir ou à commander une autre tournée. Bien qu’il n’y en ait quasiment plus à Paris et de moins en moins en province, bon nombre ont toujours en tête l’image du pépé en bleus de travail avec son béret sur la tête, sa clope au bec (préférablement une Gauloise sans filtre, merci), sa baguette sous le bras, rentrant du boulot sur son vélo ou sa vieille mob. Ces images font autant partie des symboles français que les toilettes turques, les dents mal soignées, et le bain hebdomadaire qui eux, heureusement, se font de plus en plus rares (ou plus nombreux dans notre dernier cas!)

J’ai « vécu la France » tour à tour en tant que fumeuse et non fumeuse et dans les deux cas, même si trop de fumée me pose problème, j’aime l’ambiance qui va avec. Je n’ai jamais fumé de Gauloises, mais leur odeur me manque depuis que les blondes caracolent en tête des ventes. Mon café de quartier va me manquer…

Heureusement, je pourrai toujours croiser Gaby au visage merveilleusement buriné sillonnant les petites routes de ma province sur sa vielle mob, en bleus de travail, béret sur la tête et clope au bec. C’est une icône à lui tout seul.

A bientôt,

Lokahi & Quill

Certes, fumer est mauvais pour la santé et la tabagie passive aussi. Ce ne sont pas les seules choses qui sont dangereuses. En voulant de plus en plus nous protéger contre nous-même, la vie risque de devenir stérile. Et c’est dommage qu’alors que bon nombre d’autres nuisances tout aussi dangereuses (la pollution des véhicules qui crachent leur poison pile à la hauteur des enfants pour ne citer qu’un exemple), celles-ci ne sont pas contrées avec autant d’énergie interventionniste de la part de nos gouvernements.

dimanche, octobre 22, 2006

Intercultural Management: managing teams across borders and cultures (II)

Small incidents or deficiencies can have unforeseen consequences when managing at a distance.

If you read the previous episode, you may be wondering: did Benoit get his report on time?

The short answer is yes…and no.

Benoit received a document around lunchtime Friday in Paris that did not live up to his expectations. Moreover, the following Monday morning, water cooler gossip suggested that there were some grumblings within his team. Benoit was not happy with these developments; in his mind, direct reports are supposed to provide solutions, not cause him more problems.

What had happened?

After receiving Benoit’s email, our San Franciscan – let’s call him Steve – waited for a day or so hoping he would hear from Günter about the report on Widget 913. He did not. Steve also emailed Benoit, his boss, to ask for some clarifications about the context of the report (remember, Steve, as an American, is from a low context culture; it is difficult for him to operate in a vacuum). Benoit did not reply.

Steve’s stress level was starting to rise: he felt great responsibility for getting this report done, needed to collaborate with others on his team to do so, and reacted to all this email silence negatively. When he finally emailed Günter and Michelle, he did not notice to what extent his frustration and feeling of being let down transpired in his words.

Günter, as the senior member of the team, was furious. Benoit had not informed him directly about his request. Moreover, he had given this “Steve” responsibility for coordinating it. And now Steve was “demanding” his collaboration without clearly explaining what he needed and why. Protocol had not been respected, Günter felt offended and concerned about his status within the company. He was certainly in no mood to be forthcoming and cooperative. He eventually sent off some interim data about Widget 913 a few days before the report was due.

Michelle, on the other hand, was in a panic. As the newest member of the team, she felt a need to prove herself constantly. But she knew preciously little about Widget 913, a project that had started many years before she had joined the company. None of the colleagues she had befriended in her office could shed any light on it either. After a few sleepless nights, she concluded it was safer not to respond rather than to admit to her lack of useful knowledge. After all, her boss Benoit had not asked her to participate and Steve was far away.

Steve thus spent 3 days and nights painfully assembling a report as best he could with the information he had on hand. He bemoaned the lack of team playing skills and cooperation of his foreign colleagues and started to fall into the trap of cultural stereotypes. He emailed the report to Benoit around 10 PM Friday night San Francisco time explaining as delicately as he could given his state of mind the lack of cooperation he encountered from Günter and Michelle. He expected to receive a response and feedback from Benoit when he logged onto his email the following Monday morning.

Before this episode, this GVT suffered from a lack of team identity and shared culture. They had never met as a group nor determined collectively the best practices they needed to respect in order to work effectively together.

At this juncture, this GVT is mired in petty unspoken conflict that, if left unresolved, will continue to plague its performance and that of each of its members. Mutual trust and respect needs to be restored.

Until next time,

Lokahi & Quill

samedi, octobre 07, 2006

Intercultural Management: managing teams across borders and cultures

Imagine this all too frequent scenario:

You have been working for a high tech multinational for about a year, one of the American members of a GVT (global virtual team). You are sitting in your open plan office on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in San Francisco when your computer says, “ding!” and delivers an email from your boss, Benoit, in Paris.

Benoit writes:

“Please prepare a report on the status of Widget 913. Work with Michelle and Günter. I need it by end of next week.”

The email is not copied to Michelle and Günter – members of your team you’ve never met who are located, respectively, in Sophia Antipolis and Munich. Günter is senior to you in the company, Michelle is relatively new.

In Benoit’s mind, he has been very clear about what he needs, when he needs it, and who is to work on his request. He would be surprised to realize his request has generated questions and anxiety.

What information is missing to insure Benoit obtains what he wants from his staff? Here are a few examples:

  • WHEN: What is ‘end of next week’? What day, what time, in what time zone?
  • WHO: Are Michelle and Günter informed? Have they received the same email?
  • WHY: Why is the report needed? What questions should it address? To whom is it supposed to speak? In what context?
  • HOW: What is each of them supposed to do (i.e.: who does what?)? Who holds overall responsibility? In what format is the report to be prepared? How will the report be used (read or delivered as a presentation?)

What core management principles are involved here? How do you think this will play out? What issues will come to the fore as Michelle, Günter and our San Franciscan pull together this report?

Until next time,

Lokahi & Quill

dimanche, octobre 01, 2006

Quand le mot lui-même est porteur de valeurs culturelles : Time aux Etats Unis, le temps en France

Les études menées, par exemple, par Edward T. Hall, identifient 3 variables clés pour commencer à expliquer les différences interculturelles : le contexte, le temps, et l’espace.

Nous avons évoqué la différence entre les cultures à haut contexte et faible contexte dans la communication verbale et visuelle la semaine dernière.

La signification du temps comme valeur culturelle est un vaste sujet : temps inné, temps acquis, temps monochronique, temps polychronique, vitesse ou lenteur comme facteur positif ou critiquable …

Parfois le vocabulaire lui-même dans son exploitation nous offre les premières pistes pour appréhender les différences culturelles. Il est intéressant de noter que les noms communs « time » et « temps » illustrent bien la divergence entre la culture américaine à faible contexte et la culture française à haut contexte.

Quand on fait l’inventaire des significations possibles du nom commun « time », on remarque qu’à de rares exceptions prés c’est un concept mesurable, linéaire. Lorsqu’il évoque une période qui se conjugue sur la durée, le mot est utilisé au pluriel alors qu’en français il est invariable (in ancient times v. à l’ancien temps). Quand il mesure une répétition, il est également exprimé au pluriel alors qu’en français le mot adéquat est lui aussi invariable (five times v. cinq fois ; how many times v. combien de fois). Par ailleurs, les expressions courantes construites autour de ces mots soulignent les différences culturelles liées à cette valeur : alors qu’aux Etats Unis, le temps, c’est de l’argent, une ressource précieuse et irrécupérable qui peut être investie, perdue, offerte ou gaspillée, en France, elle retient encore cette texture ronde aux frontières floues, difficilement morcelable dans son concept, qui colore la perception de la vie dont il faut bien sur profiter.

Est-il étonnant alors que les Américains paraissent souvent comme des êtres pressés ? Que dans leur souhait d’efficacité ciblée ils soient perçus comme trop directs et brusques quand, par exemple, ils se lancent dans le vif d’un sujet en faisant l’impasse sur les échanges de politesse, porteurs de contexte préalable ? Que les Américains s’étonnent des congés payés ou des horaires hebdomadaires français et les perçoivent comme une paresse nationale ? Qu’ils soient complètement déroutés lorsque, en pause d’une réunion apparemment positive, les Français privilégient d’autres sujets au cours du déjeuner ?

A bientôt,

Lokahi & Quill