Today, we are joined by guest author, Nigel Ewington from TCO International.
Recently I got the opportunity to work with a Global Mobility professional who told me a story about a loss of trust she experienced in some global colleagues. She was feeling frustrated and let-down by the actions of some colleagues who had failed to follow the policy they had agreed together. It was made worse by the fact that she had only found out about the actions indirectly.
She was a Global Mobility VP working for a global manufacturing company and responsible for a tri-regional mobility program with key mobility stakeholders in Germany and China. This program was currently occupied with moving some German managers into China. The Mobility function had recently been through a process of drawing up and agreeing on new policy, with a strict set of processes to follow across the globe. Despite seeming to have secured agreement to these new policies from her regional colleagues at a three-way meeting in the USA, the Global Mobility VP had found out that one key area of policy linked to Transportation had been flouted in China. It seemed that the rules had been broken for a German C-suite executive moving to China, and no one had bothered to inform her.
On exploring the story more deeply, I learned that during the meeting itself the Global Mobility VP had presented her ideas about a new mobility policy and asked for reactions. She feared lack of buy-in from German team members, who asked her lots of difficult questions in response to her question. She had not anticipated that the flouting of the policy would come from her Chinese colleagues. At the meeting they had listened respectfully and merely commented that they were “grateful for these directions” and “would do their very best” to implement them. She left the meeting confident that buy-in had taken place. She was now mystified as to why this hadn’t happened.
As I reflected on the story, it seemed to me to be symptomatic of a key challenge besetting global mobility. In this VUCA (Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous) world, global mobility professionals themselves have to respond to the shifting needs of their internal customers by collaborating together as one global team with one shared policy across a number of locations. Here complexity is increased by the challenge of cultural differences and distance. They are faced with the challenge of who owns Global Mobility globally, and how to make new levels of global collaboration work
If the ownership of Global Mobility is now dispersed globally, it takes special sensitivity to make sure that the cross-border collaboration is effective. The communication problem our VP faced here was not a lack of clarity nor a lack of respect, but a failure to get real buy-in from her global colleagues.
While it is a universal truth that as human beings we all love to communicate our intentions, this story reveals that we have different cultural assumptions about how to go about doing this. Chinese tend to be higher-context in their communication style, avoiding over-direct use of text and assuming that their important messages will be read between the lines. Inference, body language and situational cues are the tools of the high-context communicator. Germans on the other hand, tend to be lower-context in style, preferring to communicate the critical nature of what they are thinking more directly in the exact text of what they say. They are more direct in challenging others, even when maintaining a good relationship is critical to them. Americans – sitting culturally in the middle of these two other cultures – may misconstrue the Chinese indirectness for agreement and the German critical feedback for aggression. Here, a failure to understand the Your Way of effective communication, and how it may differ from My Way may compromise the formulation of a workable global Our Way for moving forward globally.
The lack of cultural sensitivity revealed in this case was not only a question of communication. I learned that the Global Mobility VP had dug deeper into the exact local context in which there had been a flouting of the Transportation allowance policy. In this organization’s policy, assignees are given a Transportation allowance of USD 1,000 per month used to subsidize transportation needs. Such needs include car rental, use of taxis, etc. In China, due to the regulations, expats are not encouraged to drive on their own, and car rentals tend to come with a driver instead. The German C-suite executive assumed that the car and driver was an entitlement and demanded the full costs to pay for it, although the intention was to subsidize the cost, not pay the full entitlement. Local HR acquiesced and paid from another budget.
If we accept that the Chinese mobility team was aware of the rules, despite having some concerns that they had not voiced at the meeting in the US, why did they simply not follow them? Is this possibly another cultural factor relating to understand the “your way” of global collaboration, or is it simply a lack of professionalism?
Research indicates that cultures have different assumptions about rules vs. exceptions. In all cultures we need to find the right balance between knowing when to follow the rule regardless of the context, and when to adapt the rule according to special circumstances. Some cultures can be described as “universalist,” where people tend to follow the rule regardless of the context in which it is applied. In “particularist” cultures, on the other hand, rules always need to be reinterpreted to meet the needs of particular people in particular contexts. Very often like China, such “particularist” cultures tend to be also “hierarchical” in style, where people tend to maximize the deference and privileges given to bosses, rather than minimize them.
This “particularist,” hierarchical side of Chinese culture and the flexible approach to rules that ensues can be a source of frustration to “universalist” global partners, but it can provide the sensitive handling of the delicate needs of key stakeholders locally that is critical to the implementation of mobility programs
In reflecting on the learning from this story, it occurred to me that one of the features of this story is the gap between intentions and impact, which is typical of breakdowns in global collaboration. Both sides have positive intentions in what they do and say, but due to a smokescreen of instinctive cultural styles the impact is often negative. To get real buy-in in a world where ownership of global mobility is dispersed across locations, the Global Mobility VP should have avoided leading with a presentation of her own first draft of policy, before getting reactions. Instead she could have framed the intentions of policy, and before getting to drafting rules of guidelines, she should have listened and explored how key stakeholders would implement those intentions in key global locations. In this way she would have learned about some of the cultural differences – both of the “harder,” more visible kind and the “softer,” more attitudinal and values-driven kind – revealed in the case.
I was reminded of the trilemma of focusing on My Way vs. Your Way vs. Our Way when collaborating and building buy-in in a global context. Whereas undoubtedly, to build trust you need to be yourself, authentic and honest. However, the My Way needs to be tempered with awareness and skills in understanding the Your Way of your global partners. Only in this way can you reflect on the best Our Way for turning positive intentions into effective communication, process and policy.
About Nigel Ewington
Nigel is a co-founding partner of TCO who has worked for over 20 years with over 100 organizations in the area of developing global agility. He has developed a deep understanding of what organizations need to do in order to thrive and prosper in a complex, diverse and changing world. This has been honed by his experience of living and working in other countries, as well as his own agility in travelling around the world on assignments where on a week-to-week basis he needs to bring value to many different kinds of people in many different cultural and organisational contexts.
A key underlying gift that Nigel brings to TCO clients is how to get the best out of themselves and others when managing change across geographic and organizational boundaries. Here he has built a strong reputation as a presenter, trainer and facilitator, from the very largest events on the theme of global leadership down to small, compact leadership teams that are looking increase productivity in terms of how they work together. He has been instrumental in creating the signature concepts, models and activities that make TCO original and unique.