Intercultural management: managing teams across borders and cultures (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!

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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 inocuous 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.

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