Innovation from Cross Cultural Teamwork: A Conversation with Melissa Lamson
When we polled members last year to see what topics they were most interested in for professional development courses, one of the top answers was cross-cultural teamwork, a topic we had not tackled before. Our events team put out inquiries to identify some experts in this field, and we were thrilled to find Melissa Lamson, who has 15 years of experience in the cross/intercultural field. She has worked on projects in over 30 countries, has insider knowledge into how people do business worldwide, and has consulted on German-American business partnerships, as well as publishing a book on German business culture. Melissa offer programs in selling, presenting, marketing, and expanding globally.
Melissa will be presenting a professional development course entitled, “Innovation from Cross Cultural Teamwork,” at our Spring Technology Services World Conference on Monday, May 2nd. Earlier this week I had a chance to sit down and chat with Melissa about the course, and the topic of innovation with today’s global workforce. Here’s a portion of the conversation.
John Ragsdale: 52% of TSIA member companies have operations in North America, EMEA and Asia/Pac, so global, cross cultural work teams are a daily occurrence. Are you saying that the 1 hour of corporate training on cultural sensitivity, given every 5 or so years, isn’t enough?
Melissa Lamson: Actually, I wouldn’t say any training is necessary. But knowing where support is needed as a team leader is key. If one is able to create an environment in a cross cultural work team that’s open for knowledge-sharing, suggesting ideas, and presenting creative solutions, then innovation will exist.
Furthermore, leaders can be responsive to the diverse needs of individual contributors if they excel at listening and responding, and they should be able to hold team members accountable for leveraging global perspectives.
John: After the outsourcing revolution, the high tech industry is used to terminology like “accent neutralization,” and other training to minimize cultural differences when working with customers. I’ve sometimes detected some xenophobic undertones when talking to companies about the need for this training. Do you find companies need a kick start to celebrate cultural differences instead of trying to ignore them?
Melissa: You can’t blame companies for trying to standardize procedures and methodologies worldwide. That’s the core business of the high tech industry especially. That is, to streamline business processes and optimize efficiency across multiple locations. Diverse cultures have different concepts of business etiquette, decision-making, project management, as well as technology usage and we can’t assume others see it the same way we do. If we can accept this, it will as well, foster more tolerance for different ways of doing things and may even promote celebration!
John: Of course, you don’t need to work for a global firm to have culturally diverse workforces. Here in Silicon Valley, for example, with such a diverse population, working with people from all over the globe is common. Could you talk about some of the day to day challenges you see companies facing with culturally diverse workers?
Melissa: The main struggles I see companies facing today are 1) getting buy-in or commitment from team members or business partners globally 2) convincing others to take action, and 3) getting feedback, particularly when working virtually. We deal with all of these topics in the workshop.
Take feedback for example, depending on the cultural background, there are different understandings that lie behind the meanings of words. The phrase “No problem” is tricky because it can mean, “I heard you”, “I understand you”, “I’ll do it” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about”.
Additionally, creating a culture of feedback, that is, general responsiveness, giving accolades, or providing constructive criticism, is complex across cultures. Everyone has a different way of expressing (or not expressing) whether they agree or disagree, are pleased or displeased. I facilitate another workshop called, “Creating a Culture of Feedback in Your Organization”, where we grapple with such issues.
Creating incentives or motivating others is another culturally determined success factor in business. It could be money, a new title, sense of responsibility, or the relationship to co-workers that motivates individuals to work in an organization. Motivation determines whether an individual will take action or not and it’s important to implement the right incentive to get deliverables met.
John: I’ve learned a lot over the years doing speaking events for European and Asia/Pac audiences. One of my lessons learned is that my self-deprecating sense of humor doesn’t translate well. Making jokes at your own expense may win over the audience in North America, but it can kill your credibility in the UK, and cause you to ‘lose face’ in Japan. Could you give us some other examples of typical North American attitudes or behavior that may not be effective in other countries?
Melissa: In the U.S. specifically we’ve been taught that being assertive, proud, and enthusiastic is the way to establish credibility and win business partners over. This can come across as pushy, arrogant, and unrealistic to many European or Asian cultures. The question I often get about the U.S. is, “Do they really think everything is great?” I regularly explain the reasons behind U.S. behavior in business, especially to those trying to establish joint ventures in the U.S.
Another aspect is in writing emails. By European standards especially, American emails are perceived a bit rudely. We often sacrifice the etiquette of greetings and sign-offs for the convenience and speed of one-sentence answers or requests. Our version of politeness is the “Thx” at the end of an email. This often isn’t enough for Europeans. We’ll go into more detail about expectations in email-writing across cultures in the workshop at the TSIA conference.
John: In your course abstract you talk about deriving innovation from cross-cultural teamwork. Having spent years brainstorming with diverse groups, it seems hard to gain input and participation from everyone, especially when you have a few big egos in the room dominating things. How do you make sure you are getting input and involvement from everyone?
Melissa: It is the responsibility of the team leader and team members to expressly keep the big picture at the forefront. If we’re going to be successful across cultures, we have to take global business perspectives into account. And the only way we can learn what those perspectives are is to talk about them.
It might be a question of egos, but more likely it’s a question of communication style. In Asia and Eastern Europe it is often the case that speaking up in a group format is not done. The perception is that it challenges the competence of the perceived hierarchy in the room. The meeting moderator, presenter, or highest level manager in the room should ask meeting attendees if they have something to contribute to the discussion. This isn’t the same in North America and Europe, where it is quite normal to jump in and share one’s opinion or ideas even if they don’t represent the hierarchy in the room.
John: Could you give an overview of how your professional development course is structured? How will attendees spend their day?
Melissa: We’ll start the workshop with getting a sense of the challenges in the room. This provides a good foundation for knowledge-sharing amongst the attendees. Then I’ll share the key cultural dimensions out of my research that impact deriving innovation from cross cultural teamwork. Further, we’ll use those dimensions as points of analysis for real-life business cases. I also have a short film about how to kick- off and manage a cross cultural team successfully. And finally, I’ll share best practices from relevant country locations (out of the 30+ locations I’ve led projects in worldwide). The session is very interactive and focused on skill-building in the area of deriving innovation from cross-cultural teamwork. The goal of the workshop is for attendees to be able to implement best practices immediately after the session.
This is a fascinating subject, and I hope you will take the opportunity to attend Melissa’s workshop and make sure you are maximizing all of the talent in your organization. See you at TSW! And as always, thanks for reading!