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Master the Challenges of Global Collaboration

Rusty Weston,

March 11, 2008

Picture yourself starring in a foreign movie that lacks both a script and a director. You hear everyone’s words but feel you need subtitles to truly understand what’s going on.

Sound confusing? That sense of dislocation is what global work experts say you can expect during the first six months of adapting to the rigors and challenges of a global work experience. The work-culture shock may hit you whether you’re based in St. Petersburg, Florida, or St. Petersburg, Russia.

In fact, if you think mastering global business relationships is simply a matter of understanding accents and adjusting for different time zones and work styles, think again. The biggest challenge you’re likely to encounter is moving from a largely homogenous workplace with familiar people, places and processes into a heterogeneous, multicultural environment.

One common misstep is assuming that just because you work for an American company the rest of world will accommodate you. Another is trying to bridge the communication gap by overcompensating for differences — or tuning out the details. “The really good bits of information get lost in all of the noise,” says Colleen Garton, a San Diego-based global work consultant and author of Managing Without Walls. And when a misunderstanding occurs, the messenger takes the blame. “Every culturally based behavior that appears to be negative is based on a desire to do something positive,” Garton adds.

Fortunately, there are practical steps you can take to speed the transition period and ease the stress of managing or collaborating with unfamiliar people, processes and places.

Use Tools and Processes

One of the biggest challenges in a global, virtual work environment is the inability to see how others are receiving our words across email, phone or instant messaging. Fortunately, videoconferencing, once absurdly expensive but now widely used in multinational companies, promises to help bridge communication gaps by conveying both body language and facial expressions.

While tools help bridge the divide between workers in different countries, they’re no substitute for good business processes. Among the practical steps global workers can take, Garton recommends these activities:

Set up a team calendar that includes holidays, birthdays, meetings and anniversary dates.

If possible, establish a system (such as instant messaging) that shows who is logged in and available for an impromptu discussion.

Facilitate and schedule interaction and teamwork among team members.

Organize team events whenever all team members will be in the same location.

Get Your Point Across

If you can’t communicate fluently with customers, suppliers or coworkers in other countries, what chance do you stand of advancing your career? The good news is that while language fluency matters quite a bit in certain countries, cultural training classes can help you ramp up your cultural fluency fairly quickly, which, in turn, can open up another channel of communication. And if you suspect language may be a barrier, think about using an interpreter, says Peter Weinberg, principal with Buck Consultants, a Chicago-based HR management practice.

Although nearly everyone you meet in a global business setting will say they speak English, one way to help eliminate problems is to avoid colloquialisms or slang with people you’re trying to impress or persuade. “Phrases such as ‘when push comes to shove’ or ‘at the end of the day’ will have no meaning whatsoever,” Weinberg says.

Both Weinberg and Garton stress the importance of staying connected with coworkers in other countries. Touching base with teammates at least once a day helps build rapport, especially when discussions veer away from strictly business, Garton says. “Over time, you’re likely to start talking about more personal things, and it’s those bonds that help to build strong teamwork between team members,” she says.

In addition, established multinational companies often have mentoring programs that can help workers in distant offices feel more connected to headquarters. If you’re new to a company, seek a mentor who can help you adapt to a new culture or seize a global career opportunity. Established managers can also shine by nurturing the careers of younger workers, especially those perceived as future global team leaders.

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