In this series of short articles, we investigate the difficulties of collaborating internationally.
Business leaders today face a range of complex challenges perhaps never seen in such intensity before. Take one look at the current global political landscape, and it’s easy to feel anxiety. There seem few with a compelling vision or set of talents to create the necessary platform of political stability and solid economic framework needed by individual, companies and nations to thrive. Moreover, technological advances and digitalisation, in addition to obvious opportunity, deliver real threats to the existing business models and very survival of some of the giants of our corporate world. A sense of fear is palpable in many corporate boardrooms.
Alongside these profound disruptions, we see the relentless internationalisation of business life, driven by the search for growth from new markets across the globe. And internationalisation is not easy. The record shows that it generates real challenges to collaboration at work, requiring that we interact with new colleagues and customers located in different places, with different needs and very different ways of doing business. Although arousing curiosity and interest at first, it is well documented that these differences generate misunderstandings which can quickly result in dangerous levels of frustration, ultimately, in the worst cases, undermining the ability of a company to run an efficient international operation.
In this series of short articles, we investigate the difficulties of collaborating internationally. We examine the drivers of miscommunication, and look at practical and proven strategies to lead and work in cross-border teams, for example, more effectively. We explore the 8 habits of great international communicators, and will help you to develop and refine these habits in order to enhance your own efficiency and effectiveness at work, and ultimately your own international career.
Habit #1 – Lower the waterline
One of the most important phenomena of working internationally, is that we have to work with strangers. Put simply, we have to work with people we don’t know very well. With strangers located in different places with whom we hardly meet, we don’t their competence levels. We don’t know their motivations. We don’t know their needs. We don’t know really what they think about us. Not knowing this makes it challenging for us to understand what they say and write to us. It makes it difficult for us to communicate in the right way to them. Working with strangers almost inevitably brings miscommunication, frustration and disconnection.
So, what is the answer? Well, we need to lower the waterline. Why waterline? This comes from the metaphor of the iceberg. And when working internationally, we need to think of ourselves as icebergs – partly visible above the water, but the huge portion of who we are invisible to the strangers around us, below the waterline. Yet to cooperate, we need to become more visible and understandable to others. We need to lower our waterline and the waterline of others, to be more visible to them, to make them more visible to us, and with this mutual understanding to communicate and collaborate more efficiently. Sounds easy? So then how do we lower the waterline when we go international. Fundamentally, two things need to happen in terms of communication. Firstly, we need to ask more questions to others, to allow them to express who they are and what they need. We need to get curious, proactively curious, and find out about the context of the person, their talents, strengths and the opportunities which they bring to the table. The questions can be simple – take a look; ‘What do you do exactly?’, ‘What are your main responsibilities and challenges?’, ‘Why did you choose this career?’, ‘What kind of customers do you have?’, ‘What’s your experience of working internationally?’ etc. Simply get people to tell you about themselves, and you will find out how to connect. Listen and celebrate things you have in common, ‘Me too.’, ‘Yes’, I have also ...’ or ‘I agree.’ Focus on consensus and building a shared identity. And as you ask, don’t forget to talk about yourself. Reveal information about your skills, talents and drivers which help the other person figure out how to connect and work with you.
All this is done in conversations. And so you need to find time for these conversations, and make an effort within these conversations – be present, be focused, be energetic. This energised ‘small talk’ can be tagged on to standard business calls, but as the focus here is usually the task, attention to relationships can be limited. It may be better to plan regular and dedicated relationshipfocused calls – short check-ins every two weeks – to see how people are feeling, how they are struggling, and how perhaps you can support. In addition to conversations, more formal information sharing processes are possible. You can exchange CVs. Teams often complete and circulate psychology-based tools such as Myer-Briggs or Belbin’s role profiles which provide deeper insights into individual members. Discussions of national cultures can also also a fun way to explore differences between people, although the use of stereotypes has its risks
The end point we need to get to when building relationships is trust. That’s when most of our iceberg is visible to others, and we become partly vulnerable. Importantly, we know from research that certain factors tend to generate trust between human beings. For example, we trust people who we believe are competent for the task at hand. We trust people who have a clear sense of integrity; in other words, we like to work with honest and not dishonest people. And thirdly, and very importantly we trust people who care about us. That’s why we trust family so much – it’s unconditional love. So, as you make efforts to grow your relationships, as you engage in asking and telling to lower mutual waterlines internationally, make sure you enable the other person to know that you are competent, that you are honest, and that you care about them as a person not just as a professional. This will accelerate trust. This can strengthen international collaboration. And remember, caring can be shown in simple ways - showing support regularly, planning events and tasks around others’ needs and not yours, offering small tokens of appreciation which show that you do truly care.
Effective international communicators prioritise relationship building. They focus on lower the waterline – their own and others. They try to accelerate trust. To do this, they care and they show care. This requires time; it requires effort; it demands some level of monitoring; and it may not be reciprocated, so it can feel a lonely enterprise. The question is – if you don’t do it. Who will?