Multiple locations, members from different countries with different native languages: Unchecked, even with the best technology, using email and conference calls as a replacement for face-to-face meetings can lead to unproductive, time-wasting meetings. Usually only the most outgoing and those most comfortable in the language of choice seem able to perform well. This imbalance puts more pressure on both the more assertive and the more passive of team members. How does this affect your team’s performance?
Let’s look at a typical case of a team that although producing acceptable results, is not performing to what their manager feels is its potential. Team members are often spread across the Asia-Pacific region, in cities such as Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Delhi and Shanghai. All work hard at their respective jobs, but somehow project tasks, support requests for clients and other seemingly routine jobs, either take too long or were done less than satisfactorily. Small things can seem to affect team motivation and performance, at times leading to retention challenges.
1. Leveraging 'Small Data’
You don't need reams of Big Data. By gathering data via simple, anonymous surveys and a few interviews and you’ll quickly discover what is really dragging down performance. The anonymous survey data can revealing. If your company does engagement surveys then you can use those. Use this data to get some conversations going, either individually or as a team. Which approach is best will depend on your team's dynamics. Many people, especially in Asia, while reluctant to be the one to mention an issue, are happy when it’s out in the open. Once in the open, you can do something about it. (A key use of the data is to help conversations stay more objective, keeping emotions in check.)
Usually we find that people know their jobs, and while their abilities to speak English are varied, language is not the core issue. The most common challenge we run across is the way teams communicate via conference calls and emails. This varies from excellent to overbearing to almost non-participative. Often, it is all these in combination which creates an underlying tension. For a few this can be so frustrating they find work elsewhere. We call this 'Communication Conflict' and it tends to occur over time and can remain under the radar, smoldering, eating away at the performance of your team.
2. Leveling the playing field
In Asia, and perhaps elsewhere, there is a tendency to assume that the less assertive team members are at issue. While working at increasing assertiveness in the more passive members, you also need to address those who are more assertive. The reason behind this is because while from a global standpoint, a person may be considered appropriately assertive, from the perspective of some Asian countries, they can be seen as overwhelmingly aggressive, bordering on rude. To be clear, it’s important to remember here that we are not out teach culture. It’s much to broad a topic. Our goal here is to improve team performance, to get the job done.
Both groups will need regular feedback so they stay on track.
3. Applying ’Nemawashi’: the quiet approach
Finally to pull everything together, I suggest adapting an age-old Japanese practice called 'nemawashi'. Simply put, 'nemawashi' is a form of networking in which someone meets with most or all those involved, discussing and negotiating their individual needs in order to come to an arrangement before all meet at a decisive meeting.
We have found that to produce lasting results, having team members contact each other offline, usually via email at first, can make a huge difference. To jumpstart this, you may want to provide one or two short email scripts designed for both sides to send to each other. These scripts can describe specific strategies that support clear, concise communication for global teams, such as . The idea is to get the ball rolling using this quiet approach, setting things up for their regular conference calls.
To some this may sound unnecessary, even going a bit too far. That said, performance isn’t always the only issue, retention is another as good people know they can get another job. Our research data of foreign companies in Japan clearly indicates that over 60% of Japanese employees are frustrated working with non-Japanese, while less than 9% of their non-Japanese colleagues even realize this lays just below the surface. How about employees in other Asian countries?
Global rules of engagement
This relatively simple, yet effective approach provides teams with a clear set of rules of engagement for global business environments. Currently most teams we have worked with assume that everyone who speaks English also plays by the same rules. This is far from the case as almost all who have not studied or worked abroad for long periods, communication in English using their countries rules of engagement. This leads to Communication Conflict, lowering motivation and in turn performance
At your next conference call or face-to-face meeting, sit back and listen to better understand how each member participates or doesn’t. Are they sharing information, asking questions and commenting as freely as you think necessary? Is it everyone or just one or two? Is it affecting performance? Your team is you. It’s your call. Are you satisfied or does your team need a tune-up?