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When cultures collide

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in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

If you've attended a diversity training seminar, you've learned how to bridge cross-cultural gaps. By showing sensitivity to people from different backgrounds and listening before judging, you can develop positive working relationships with a broad range of individuals.

As a manager, however, your job often boils down to persuasion. How do you win over employees from all over the world?

Western notions of persuasion involve building a strong, fact-filled case and communicating your position with logic and credibility. But that may not work with everyone.

An American who manages an Asian employee needs to adopt a different persuasive strategy. The Chinese, for example, have a self-deprecating manner of asking for something--and they prize modesty as a virtue.

In a write-in contest reported in The Wall Street Journal in which foreigners are trying to persuade the Chinese authorities to let them carry the famous torch during the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics, an American architect in Shanghai appealed to the Chinese sensibility by writing, "I don't deserve to carry the Olympic Torch for China. China has changed my life. China has given to me more than I have given to China."

To manage a diverse staff, identify not only how each of them relates to people but also how they relate to time and whether they accept American cultural norms. If you ask foreigners to sign a performance contract, for instance, they may comply but then ignore the terms. That's because contracts may be perceived as less important to those who hail from countries with less-developed economies. Similarly, "pay for performance" may mean different things in different cultures.

It's best to anticipate cultural gaps, ask lots of questions and take initial misunderstandings in stride. When all else fails, say, "My job requires that I manage your performance. Your job is to meet or exceed our performance standards. How can I help you do that?"


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