Why a US-Expat Executive upset her European team

By Myriam Callegarin • April 23rd, 2013

A US American executive had been sent to Germany as an EMEA Finance Director. I’ll call her Mary. Her team was spread out across Europe and the Middle East, and most of their communications were via email. Mary was complaining that some members of her team  were not replying her emails, and when she met them in person, some of them were cold or even rude. Mary was thinking that they were questioning her authority, and was upset about it. As a matter of fact, some team members considered Mary arrogant and bossy.

The culprit

By looking at Mary’s email communications, the reason for the troubles started becoming more clear. For example, one of her emails to an Italian report read more or less as follows:

“Antonio:
The presentation is incomplete. You want to include 1) X, 2) Y, and 3) Z and send it to Julia for review.
Thx, Mary”

Since the salutation was missing, Antonio thought he was being reproached, as if he were a kid who had been caught stealing candies. He reported thinking: ‘How can Mary know what I want? That’s what SHE wants’. Antonio had some good reasons for not including XYZ in the presentation, and argued that there was no need for his boss to tell him exactly what he needed to do, he wasn’t dumb.

Why this happened

US Americans tend to be task-oriented, straight-forward and clear in their communications. They respect other people’s time and keep communications short. By giving clear explanations, they want to make it easy for others to understand what they want. Often, they send emails without any salutation because they believe they are being open and informal.

However, this collides with many southern European and Middle Eastern’s cultures that are more relationship-oriented. In those cultures, people gladly invest some more time in building and nurturing mutually beneficial collaborations. Their emails tend to be longer, always include some sort of salutation such as ‘Dear‘ or ‘Hi‘, and often begin by showing some sort of interest in the other person, such as ‘How are you?’.

The end result

When Mary and her team became aware of how their cultural differences were influencing their interactions (and ultimately business results), they started understanding what was actually driving their own behaviour. They started becoming more tolerant, and also more mindful about their approaches. This helped them to improve their communication, and to build a stronger cohesion.

Conclusion

Our intentions do not always correspond to the impact we are having on others. In a multi-cultural working environment this happens more often than we may be aware of: while we believe we are doing the right things, we may actually be creating an explosive chain reaction.

If you would like to learn how to influence (positively!) the people you work with in your international role, read ‘The Insider’s Guide of Expat Executives’. It shows you a simple 5-step process that helps you to inspire your multicultural team, your boss, and decision-makers in the Headquarters  to help you succeed.

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