Cross-Cultural Leadership: How to Stimulate Your Asian Team Members to Speak Up?

Intercultural Communication, text balloons in green and orange

In today’s globalized economy, the odds that you will lead or work with global business teams (including westerners and Asians, for instance) are clearly on the rise. In such global teams, team effectiveness is not only impacted by personal (people’s characters and temperament) and organizational (level of team alignment from the start) elements. There are important cultural elements at play as well. Cultural elements that can, if not understood and properly addressed, quickly lead to frustration and ineffective teams.

Imagine the following situation.

You are an American manager leading a global HR team from your company headquarters: London. One of your team members is Chinese – let’s call her Wang Xiaomei. She is both competent and kind, and masters the English language well. You have noticed a recurring pattern, however. Ms. Wang does not easily express her own opinion. Whenever discussions in the team get heated (the other team members – Dutch, American, and German – love heated discussions!), Wang Xiaomei literally draws back. Even when she has her own opinion. Even if she silently disagrees with what her colleagues are proposing. As a result, the problem surfaces too late. The other team members are getting increasingly frustrated about this.

Do you recognize this?

Situations like these regularly happen, in my experience. Not only when people born and raised in Europe or America negotiate and work with Chinese people. I have seen the same issue pop up in business teams where west meets east (Japan, Korea, India) in general, and hamper team effectiveness.

Why does Wang Xiaomei not speak up? Is she just shy or could there be another explanation?

Directness of speech, or the degree to which people feel comfortable communicating in a direct and no-nonsense way, differs across cultures.

Specific versus Diffuse

Cultures like the Chinese, Indian or Japanese are often referred to as high-context cultures: communication in those cultures tends to be indirect, nuanced, and layered, with listeners depending on a detailed understanding of subtle verbal and non-verbal cues within the given context to read between the lines.

Cultures like the American, German or Dutch, on the other hand, are generally perceived as low-context cultures: communication tends to be direct, explicit, and precise, and messages are generally taken at face value.

(The terms ‘high-context’ and ‘low-context’ were originally coined by the American anthropologist Edward Hall, who lived among Navajo and Hopi native Americans for many years and observed that human speech varies depending on whether there is a ‘high’ or ‘low’ level of assumed shared cultural context.)

Wang Xiaomei does not easily speak her mind, because to her it feels more awkward than to the shyest of Americans or Dutchmen. In addition, to Wang Xiaomei, speaking up in team meetings involves the risk of losing face.

In her culture, to admit you cannot do something is a loss of face. To say ‘Yes, I agree,’ and then have to change your position later is a loss of face. Losing your temper in public? A loss of face. Seasoned China experts like Samuel Y. Kupper maintain that westerners, no matter how well versed in the Chinese language and culture, can never truly understand the Asian concept of losing, and giving, face. ‘At best, we can be sensitive to the issue, be aware of it, and try to avoid causing the Chinese counterpart to suffer a loss of face’ (find here some useful tips on how to avoid making people lose face).

How can you prevent this type of culturally related communication issues in your global business team?

How can you, in an effort to improve your team’s effectiveness, encourage team members like Wang Xiaomei to speak her mind when needed?


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These 3 things work well in my experience:

1. Use indirect language when inviting him or her to speak

 Use language giving the other person ‘space’ and offering him/her the possibility to gradually move closer to the core of the issue.

 For instance:

  • ‘How are these kind of problems perceived in your country?’
  • ‘Do you have an example you would like to share?’

Instead of:

  • ‘What do you think we should do about this problem?’

2. Listen to what is meant instead of what is said

Ask clarifying questions, even if you think you know what the other is saying. Check carefully, and give the other the feeling you value his or her opinion and contribution to the discussion.

For instance:

  • ‘What of what you just said would be the most important for us?’
  • ‘Can you explain why you consider this to be important?’

Not:

  • ‘So your opinion is …?’
  • OK, I got it, you want us to do …?’

3. Ask for advice and invite the other to share experience

Asking for an opinion or direct solution can be confronting. Asking for advice is often a gentler way to invite the other to share ideas and experiences, and by doing that creating a better understanding of how he or she feels about the problem.

For instance:

  • ‘What advice would you give to a team that is dealing with this challenge?’
  • ‘What solutions have you seen working in the past?’
  • ‘What do you think would be wise for us to do?’

Read more tips here.

Which approach has worked for you? Share your own best tips below!

Written by Aad Boot and Hanneke Siebelink

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Photo:ValeryKensky/Flickr (Creative Commons)


Aad Boot leaning against a door postAad is a global business advisor, change leader, executive team facilitator, leadership coach, and frequently asked keynote speaker. He is founder and managing partner at HRS Business Transformation Services where he works with senior executives and leadership teams globally in three key domains: ‘leading complex change’, ‘cross-cultural leadership’, and ‘post-merger integration’. Find out more about Aad and our services. If you would like to invite Aad to your organization contact us.

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