Today, we are constantly reminded of the vast differences in people’s social norms. These are contingent on culture, religion, even regions. Perhaps, because of special friendship I have with a family of Persian ancestry, I began reading a book on cultural differences, Multicultural Manners: Essential Rules of Etiquette for the 21st Century by Norine Dresser. While I feel this is a highly beneficial book, I think another book is more important if an organization works with diverse nationalities, The Coach: Creating Partnerships for a Competitive Edge by Steven J. Stowell, Ph.D. and Matt M. Starcevich, Ph.D.
This book takes the reader through eight skills, the authors call steps, to building strong business relationships. I call them skills because the steps are not necessarily used in sequence. While these can be used sequentially, they can also be used together or singly depending on the situation. However, the first step, Be Supportive, is central and connects with all the other steps.
When I read the book the first time, I thought the authors meant being supporting only entailed encouragement, helping, and listening to the other person. Now, I understand that the authors encourage the readers to take the initiative to really try to understand the situation from other vantage points. This requires action on our part and often means change in our thinking, ouch. This brings us back to multicultural issues.
We tend to see the world through the eyes of our own background. Ms. Dresser relates the following experience in her book. New to the United States, a Korean student, Ji, is greeted by a classmate with “How’s it going?” Ji doesn’t know what “it” is. Ji ignores the greeting. The classmate asked Ji again and again, Ji ignored the greeting. The classmate became so annoyed that he finally he yelled to Ji, “How’s it going?” To which, Ji replies, “My house is not going.” Had the classmate taken time to remember that Ji was new to the culture, he/she might have rephrased the question to “how are you?” or “How are you doing with the assignments?”
As business leaders, we cannot assume that our message will be received as we intended. Some idioms are unfamiliar or have different meanings in different parts of the country. Dialect can make a difference in understanding as well. A few years ago, my husband and I went to a local restaurant on Long Island, New York. The busy waitress asked me if I wanted wuud da. Based on negative experiences when I had answered yes to a question I didn’t understand, I immediately replied no. I was totally surprised when our friends’ nine year old daughter was given a glass of water. Had I asked the waitress “What is wuud da? She and my friends may have laughed, but then I would have had a glass of water.
My point is that we cannot understand everyone and not everyone understands us. The answer, then, to this predicament is to ask questions and talk about any confusion. Just as I was hesitant to ask, others may not be bold enough to put themselves in a spotlight. So as leaders, we must lead by asking some questions but never with a blunt, “Do you understand?” Many people are too embarrassed to admit that they don’t understand. This is the crux of the step “Be Supportive.”
To be Supportive means to put assumptions aside and withhold judgments until the other person has given his/her perspective. You cannot understand another perspective through a onetime conversation; this is when the action begins. Understanding requires observations, questions, and discussions with the other person over a period of time. The authors of The Coach list Ten Supportive Behaviors a leader should demonstrate. Here are five of my favorites:
- Collaboration/Flexibility – responsibility is shared
- Empathy/Understanding – treats feelings, concerns, and difficulties with dignity
- Listening/interaction – gives full attention, asks a lot of questions, gives employees time to express ideas, reactions, and suggestions
- Positive Exchange – approach focuses on issues in gentle, non-aggressive, non-threatening, non-judgmental way
- Owning some Responsibility/Openness – accepts responsibility for contributing to the situation. Shows trust , shares important information and insight
Notice that all of these are positive actions in understanding the employee and the situation. It does not give blame for being different but acknowledges diversity. They also explain that supportive behaviors need to be displayed before any coaching session and it must be on-going to ensure success. It is critical to the development of any relationship, but especially in creating high performing and successful teams.
Certainly, there is much more to understand if your employee is from a culture with a different language. However, don’t underestimate the importance of differences within the same country. For example, in the United States, states in the north eastern quadrant ten to place value on being punctual, but in the south it is socially proper , often expected, to be a half hour late. This doesn’t mean one is right and the other wrong. It just means expectations will differ. As leaders, it is important to try to understand diverse background our team members may have so that we don’t have unreasonable expectations from them.
Once you understand the other person’s perspective, you can relay your expectations of them more clearly. By being sensitive to the differences in perception, a leader can make better decisions, give clear messages, help team members understand each other, and strengthen the organization’s effectiveness.