I hear many of my clients, who work within intercultural teams, tell the five lies below. I call these lies intercultural blind spots. Since you can’t change what you can’t see, it’s important to look closely at the faulty assumptions on which these lies are based. When left unexamined, these blind spots can become the root cause of problems within a team, such as ineffectiveness, decreased morale and mistrust. If you are part of an intercultural team, read on and see whether you are telling any of these lies and what you can do about it.
Lie #1: “I’m just a cog in the wheel, so my opinion won’t make any difference.”
Believing that you are just a cog in a wheel is how many of us see international business. Here’s my review of a book that challenges the cog-in-a-wheel metaphor. I share the authors’ view of business as a conversational model. From a communication perspective, not expressing your opinion will deprive other team members of the benefit of your experience and your unique point of view. That is at the heart of Dance of Opinions, a book I wrote about expressing opinions across cultures.
Rather than asking yourself whether there’s any point expressing your opinions, ask instead if you are being as effective as you would like to be when expressing them. To increase your effectiveness, you need to learn the difference between grounded and ungrounded opinions and begin building bridges to your listeners from other cultures.
Lie #2: “We all speak English, so communicating is not a problem.”
Speaking a common language, typically English, is simply the starting point for communicating across cultures. Unfortunately, this lie is most often told by native speakers, not those using English as a second language. Just because you speak the official corporate language perfectly doesn’t mean that you don’t need to change how you speak and listen to people from other cultures.
Lie #3: “I know what others in the team think about me and frankly I don’t care.”
The truth is that everyone cares about the opinions others have of them. If others have a negative opinion about you, then you may well try all sorts of tactics to change that. What works in your own culture may not be as effective with other cultures, so you need to learn how to actively participate in building an intercultural identity.
Lie #4: “I know who trusts me and who doesn’t trust me and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Mutual trust is the foundation on which all effective teams are built. It’s much easier to build trust with people from our own culture than with those from other cultures. Furthermore, we can’t be as certain whether people from other cultures trust us or not. If you want to become more effective at evaluating and building intercultural trust, read my five-part series on this essential topic.
Lie #5: “Since I’m in my own country, those coming from other cultures need to adapt to me.”
You no longer have to leave your office to work across cultures. With so much business communication being conducted by email, phone and videoconference, other cultures are coming to you, whether your office is in Paris, London, Bangkok or Budapest. So it’s easy within that context to believe that others have to adapt to you. Easy but shortsighted.
I tell my clients that it is more effective to be the first to adapt. Why? The truth is that rarely will anyone adapt to you. So if no one is willing to adapt how they speak and listen, what are the chances of effective intercultural communication taking place? This is one of the biggest problems I see within intercultural teams, whether they work in the same office or from different locations around the world. Everyone is waiting for everyone else to adapt first. Trust me, it’s a losing formula.
Stop Lying and Start Learning
You’ll notice that the common thread in this article is to see your blind spots and then learn to take different action: expressing opinions more effectively, expanding intercultural speaking and listening skills, actively participating in building an intercultural identity, increasing intercultural trust, and being the first to adapt how you speak and listen to people from other cultures.
The benefit to you in doing all of this is that you will gradually be mastering a skill set that will serve you throughout your intercultural career. Not only will you be more effective within your current intercultural team but in others you may join in the future.