Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness? (Part 2)

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the importance of openness within teams. About how our perception of openness can vary much from culture to culture, and how this can seriously hinder teams from being successful. In ‘Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness – Part 1’ I described the case of an executive team that experienced difficulties in creating openness among each other. They found out that the way they communicated with each other was a fundamental obstacle for openness, in the way they interacted, how they listened to each other. In this Part 2 you read what they decided to change in their communication, how they changed their listening mode and increased the mutual openness in the team.

Never underestimate the power of listening! That is what the team learned. We human beings are drilled in processing loads of information, filtering out what we need, analyze what it means, and responding to it. We are used to do this almost non-stop. And we are really good at it! Why? Because we have a secret weapon: our brain. Our brain can process all information that comes in and it guides us in how to react to it. It is immensely effective in categorizing all those numerous pieces of information in very little time in cleverly constructed boxes. Therefore, it is able to process huge amounts of data and making information out of it that makes sense to us. And it can do this at the speed of light (or something like that). But this incredible ability has a disadvantage. It makes us lazy! The brain works so well and so fast that we tend to rely too much on its processing. We believe too easily that all the tiny constructed boxes are the right ones. We trust that the way the brain categorizes information into those boxes is correct. Even more, the repetitiveness of many of the categorizations creates recognition and strengthens our believe that they are correct. And many times they are right, but not always. When we are confronted with unknown new information it is tempting to put it in already existing boxes where it seems to make sense. But what if it does not belong there? What if we actually need to create a new box based on new insight?

If we don’t trigger ourselves continuously to challenge the way we process information we run the risk that we do not create knowledge and insights, but prejudices.  That is why listening is often more difficult than we expect. Especially in cross-cultural environments it is crucial to shift your listening mode from ‘listening to react’ (where you keep using your existing boxes) to ‘listening to learn’ (where you are open to creating new boxes).

The team I described in Part 1 decided to specifically focus on the way they listened to each other. They defined together a set of listening principles that they decided to use during each team meeting and during 1-on-1 meetings with each other. These listening principles became a crucial part of their team operating principles. And it changed the level of openness within the team in a drastic way. This is the set of principles they used:

  • Ask questions to receive information and explanation, not to sell your idea

Often we raise a question directly followed by a long explanation why we ask this question. We are so eager to explain our culture, our values and beliefs, our reasoning and wisdom. By doing this we are in fact (even unconsciously) ‘selling’ our idea or opinion instead of really listening to how others perceive it. We are in fact not really open to receive, but instead we are sending to convince. When we force ourselves to raise a question without additional explanation, we change our thinking and it triggers us to focus on the other and to open up.

  • Openness means asking open questions

Textbook stuff, right? Sure, but if you combine it with the first principle it becomes less obvious. Just try it out and play with it during meeting. And keep in mind that by asking a really open question you hand over the steering wheel to the other. He or she will now steer. You will not know where the conversation will go. It is very well possible that it is a different direction from the one you were steering on. That is exactly the purpose of an open question: let the other steer and choose the direction. You follow. It’s amazing what unexpected and valuable information comes your way.

  • Listening means trying to limit your thinking

This is maybe the hardest part. Real listening means that we receive as much information as possible. The more information, the better we can learn to understand the other’s perception, cultural beliefs, opinions, etc. But the fact that the information is coming from another cultural background makes it harder than normal to process. We might have difficulties with understanding what the meaning is of what the other is saying. And then our brain kicks in and starts to help us by putting these peaces of strange information into our existing boxes. It makes it easier for us to process the information, but it is potentially strengthening our prejudices. In fact, we are no longer really listening but are thinking in ourselves and creating a picture that makes sense within the boundaries of our cultural values and beliefs. Real listening requires being aware of this mechanism and being able to stop it when it happens, and to keep actively focusing on the other. Limit your thinking as much as possible until the other is done talking.

  • Probe first, react later

When the other is done talking you have time to think through what you heard.  Some of us feel uncomfortable at this moment of silent reflection. But don’t you worry, it proves you are really listening and are taking in the other’s message.  Immediate reaction or reply often creates the opposite impression that you are not really interested and are mainly focused on you. Reflecting on what you heard allows you to check if you completely understand what you heard. It triggers new questions that further explore parts that are still not clear to you. Open questions, sometimes introduced by a small summary of what you do not completely understand. Avoid to react on what you heard based on your own interpretations (your own boxes). First make sure you really understand what the other means before you react.

  • Use questions that leave space for the other

This is a principle that is often overlooked. As described in Part 1, asking an honest question does not necessarily mean that the other feels comfortable with it. You try to be honest and open, but the other feels pushed and confronted by you because he or she does not feel ready yet to talk about it. Be alert to these potential situations and try to avoid them by asking questions that leave space for the other to choose how to respond and what to share with you at this moment. It might feel a bit strange but the other will recognize it and will appreciate your respectful approach. And very likely the other will open up to you much quicker when you leave them some space. Example: you want to know how this person is thinking about a certain problem; you don’t ask, “what do you think we should do about this problem?” but for instance “how are these kind of problems perceived in your country?”

  • Only give your opinion when it adds value

A powerful principle that in my experience is valid in every culture. If your opinion is adding value to a discussion then share it. If not, then keep it to yourself. There is no point to share it. You probably disturb the dialogue by sharing it, create useless discussions, loss of time, or even offend others unintentionally. If it helps to build better understanding, to create openness on where you stand on a certain topic, to get to a solution together, perfect!

The team followed these set of principles carefully. At the beginning it felt artificial, but after some weeks the first signs of change became visible. Gradually the team developed a better mutual understanding and openness.

What is your experience with communication in cross-cultural teams and with creating openness? I am looking forward to reading your stories and comments!


As international business advisor, change leader, facilitator and executive coach Aad supports companies, their leaders and leadership teams in achieving sustainable business success in cross-cultural environments. He works with his clients on topics about leading complex change, cross-cultural leadership, post-merger integration, and amplifying business performance. He shares his experience and stories on http://leadershipwatch-aadboot.com.

One Comment on “Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness? (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Leading Cross-Cultural Teams: How to Create Openness? (Part 1) | Leadershipwatch – Aad Boot

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