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Multicultural Business Meetings: How to Avoid Getting Lost in Translation

By Neil Payne, Commisceo Global

November 11 2013 - The business meeting is one area where your personal and business skills get tested the most. Within HR, practitioners find themselves frequently within meetings of all sorts - performance reviews, meetings with suppliers, disciplinary meetings and more.

When these meetings take on a multicultural dimension, the skills needed to pull off a pitch-perfect result are tested even more so. Cultural differences often receive little attention in terms of preparation; however this is one area with potentially acute ramifications upon the outcome of your meeting.

Culture impacts everything you do. This follows on into areas of business such as the meeting - how cultures approach, run and conclude meetings differ. When cultures come together without an understanding of these differences, that's where things can get lost in translation. That's what is crucial to try and avoid.

A simple example of a cultural difference is time.

The Americans say "time is money" and the Brits die of shame being 3 minutes late, but not all cultures live by the clock. Time orientated cultures (think Germans) tend to have fixed approaches to how meetings should work. The start time, finishing time and all the milestones in between will be adhered to and even overseen by a Chair to ensure time is not encroached upon.

In less time conscious cultures (think Saudi Arabia) the start time might be an approximation and dependent upon the time attendees can actually get there. "Late" takes on a very different meaning. Topics might not be covered sequentially, lots of time is spent on informal chat, people walk in late or leave early and finish times are only ever really an approximation.

Whatever side of the fence you sit on, if you are meeting with a culture that takes a different approach to time than yours, there will a need to adapt your thinking or behaviour.

Here are some other areas to look out for.

Politeness is Key

All cultures have their own protocol, etiquette, gestures, mannerisms and ways of expressing themselves. Getting the level of formality right is important. Shouting, throwing hands around and even storming out of meetings are all possibilities depending on where you may be or who you are dealing with. If you know how to respond, you will do well, so it's crucial you learn about particular behaviours and politeness.

Manage Expectations

Getting expectations aligned is fundamental to managing meetings well. Prior to a meeting make it clear what the purpose of the meeting will be. What do both sides want to achieve? Who are the attendants? What documentation is needed? Contact the participants and discuss the meeting and what you/they require of each person. If ready, send them or ask for the agenda.

Keep it Relaxed

Many people find business meetings scary for whatever reason. This may be stage fright, sitting in front of the boss and feeling inferior to colleagues when it comes to technical know-how. This can lead to stilted interaction due to anxiety, tension, nervousness and general discomfort. This will not produce positive results so try introducing subtle differences to a meeting to put people at ease. Ice breakers, warm ups, small talk, etc all help keep things calm.

Group Sizes Matter

Small groups tend to work more effectively within meetings. The setting allows for a sense of security and encourages participation. In a multicultural business meeting, using small group sizes can be used in two ways.

  1. Before a meeting identify who will be coming and what they can or should contribute. Will the meeting cover different topics? Will it require input from different business areas? If you are organised enough you can initiate some smaller meetings beforehand where you group participants who are comfortable with one another or who share expertise in the same area. Ask the groups to take their conclusions to the next, larger, meeting. Participants there will now feel comfortable with their contributions and ideas.
  2. If possible, break your meeting up into smaller groups where feedback and open discussion may flow more easily. Then ask a delegated head of each group to summarise their findings. This may allow those who would not normally speak out in front of larger groups to get their views across.
Mix it Up

In a meeting where the numbers are a bit bigger and the cultures diverse, a major error is to suggest that those of similar cultures work, group or be seated together. This will not allow for more open discussions. Cosy in their cultural groups, attendees tend slip into their cultural norms. It is vital you mix up your meeting.

Confirm Meanings

You would be surprised at the number of times people have left a meeting all with different ideas over what they had agreed to. Assumptions as to the meaning of a word, phrase, symbol, picture or agreement will lead to confusion further on down the line. When it is felt that all parties agree upon something, spell it out clearly in terms of what you understand has been agreed and what will happen next. Follow this up in writing.

Business meetings require great planning and organisation if they are to be effective. As well as issues such as agendas, meeting rooms and handouts, also think about the dynamics of the attendees - their culture is one dynamic that should not be ignored.

About the author

Neil Payne is Director of Commisceo Global
London based cross cultural communications consultancy providing cultural awareness training.




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