How to divide a company with a common language

All the attendees from Paris have arrived for our 2-day workshop on integrating an international project team, as have the ones from London. The Italians are nowhere to be seen – and the workshop is being held in Rome. What the heck is going on?


We’ve organised this international workshop for a European multinational to take place in Rome to increase the chances of the Italians turning up; however, as for the previous three events, there is no sign of the key Italian stakeholder or his direct reports who’d attended the preparation sessions. They have, once again, delegated a couple of apparently random, unbriefed staff to take their place.

The French and Brits are furious; they can’t believe the Italians would be so disrespectful/ unreliable/ rude/ etc. Instead of using the workshop as an opportunity to define common ways of working for their multinational team, they spend it blaming the absent Italians for every dysfunctional aspect of their project. No progress is made and the workshop is an expensive waste of time.

And all because we have different views of what a meeting is.

We may all be doing business in English, the official company common language, but this doesn’t mean we’re all speaking the same language.

When we arrange a meeting involving different countries and cultures, we need to be sure we’re talking about the same thing.

What is the purpose of meetings?

rde5281_hiAre they for …

  • deciding things, generating agreements, deals and action plans?
  • building and strengthening relationships, and demonstrating commitment?
  • scoping situations and priorities, and for surveying stakeholder positions and attitudes?
  • adhering to a schedule, checking on previously agreed objectives, working through a previously defined agenda and following processes for generating specific outcomes?
  • spontaneously gathering the necessary people to resolve a particular problem and/or urgent matter in real time, for as long as it takes?
  • ensuring that everyone is exhaustively informed about a situation, or for going through the fine detail of an agreement?
  • entertaining and impressing your peers and superiors?
  • affirming hierarchical status?

These are all valid meeting objectives, but depending on where you’re from, they will appear to range from the reasonable to the ridiculous.  But what is completely reasonable for a Brit could be totally ridiculous for an Italian, and what is appropriate for the Germans may be unsustainable for the French.

In some parts of the world and in some companies, meetings follow rigid parliamentary procedures, with rotating roles, agendas, minutes, turn-taking, chairing, motions, and voting. In other parts of the world meetings are informal, last-minute free-for-alls, and decisions are made either before or after them, by one decision-maker.

Navigating cultural minefields with contextual intelligence

At the time of the story above, I had just begun to experience the virtues and vices of these two extremes of meeting styles among others, but I hadn’t yet developed what Tarun Khanna calls the contextual intelligence to imagine what a minefield our culturally-defined assumptions about meetings could be.

A minefield, without even considering that the culture shock we experience when our expectations of how things work are challenged is much stronger when you are dealing with “close neighbours” with a shared history and cultural heritage, as with European countries, than when doing business with cultures you expect to be very different.

japan bowingIn his HBR  article, where he discusses why most successful and profitable companies fail to be successful and profitable when they cross national borders, Khanna describes contextual intelligence as “the ability to understand the limits of our knowledge and to adapt that knowledge to an environment different from the one in which it was developed”.

In other words, our assumptions about most things, including meetings, time-keeping, ethics, polite behaviour, management, leadership, humour, socialising, one’s relationship with the workplace, etc., don’t travel well.

Experience of living abroad and good language skills are no guarantee of cultural sensistivity

I’d always thought that the fact that I’m half English, half Italian, spent 5 years in an international French lycée, speak English, French and Italian and have lived in England, France, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Hong Kong and the US would give me some kind of cultural sixth sense. But apparently this isn’t enough.

Adopting a company common language is a good way to improve collaboration across national borders, but as Neeley and Kaplan point out in their HBR article, having good language skills in no way equates to managerial competence and cultural sensitivity. This approach can result in a tendency to promote people based on their language rather than their corporate skills, or even based on their nationality, and to send unsuitable people on important assignments abroad because they have strong language skills.

How do we develop “contextual competence”?

There are many excellent tools for and approaches to raising awareness of cultural assumptions and differences, including guidebooks for different national business culturesweb guidesnational culture “personality tests”online learning tools, and facilitated workshops to explore cultural incidents and scenarios.

A 3 part process for analysing cultural misunderstandings

Here are three questions we can use to understand what happens in situations where there has clearly been a cultural misunderstanding.

  1. What, objectively, happened?
  2. How can you interpret what happened in the light of what you know about the relevant cultures?
  3. How can you prevent this from happening again?

What, objectively, happened in the incident above?

We have to answer this question without any judgement or evaluation of people’s behaviour. For example, in the case of the incident above, an international two-day workshop was organised, with key stakeholders from Italy, France and the UK present at the preparation meetings. On the day of the workshop, the Italian key stakeholders didn’t turn up. This had also happened on three previous occasions.

How can we explain what happened using what we know about the cultures involved?

culture-cartoonA likely explanation for the behaviour of the Italians is that we didn’t take into account how much more hierarchical Italian business culture is, compared to the UK and even the French. Whereas in the UK problem-solving and decision-making tend to follow democratic processes, and power is more distributed through different management levels, in Italy decisions are made at the top. The most senior Italian stakeholder felt he was being required to negotiate things with people at a lower level in the international organisation which he would normally decide himself. In English, to add insult to injury.

Italian meetings are also the most informal in the world. In Italian business culture people don’t commit to meetings in the same way they do in France and in the UK, where meetings are arranged weeks in advance to find a date that suits everyone. Most meetings happen as needed, according to the boss’ requirements, and regardless of any other commitments his or her team might have.

How can we prevent this from happening again?

To cut a long story short, in the short term we gave up having international problem-solving workshops which involved key Italian stakeholders in this company, preferring to run Italian-only workshops focussing on the Italian perspective on international project integration issues, after which the decision-maker could negotiate with his French and British counterparts on a one-to-one basis.

Assume positive intentions

A key attitude for managing cultural misunderstandings is to assume that all the parties involved  have positive intentions.  Italian meetings don’t follow the same logic as British ones, but they produce the desired results. As the British say, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, and assuming positive intentions can help us appreciate the truth of this.

How good are you at interpreting the behaviours of your foreign colleagues?

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