Working in or with a non-U.S. entity can test our abilities to effectively communicate. If our experience base with other cultures is limited, we may overlook or take for granted how our language or words are interpreted. I would like to share with you a few examples of how communications slowed down our progress during a critical business integration process.
I had the opportunity to work with a worldwide business group and we completed a Korean acquisition during a very tough economic time. The business unit and the human resource directors were visiting the president of the local facility. As custom in Asia, relationships are built on trust and communication.
During our initial set of conversations, we realized our filters were in high gear. We assumed our Korean counterparts understood the meaning behind our words because they were speaking our language. In the first example, we were sitting in the president’s office having an initial discussion on how to assess what type of compensation system and methodology to use in the future.
President: Oh I see. (deep sigh)
Several months later, after the analysis was completed on the organizational structure, job positions and compensation levels, the human resources director recommended salary adjustments for some of the employees. We visited the Korean facility to discuss our findings and to develop a communication plan. Our next conversation with the President surprised us!
Mr. President (wrinkled brow): What do you mean that only a few employees are to receive an increase? All the employees are expecting increases.
Human Resources Director: Mr. President, why do the employees think they are to receive an increase? On our last visit, we discussed that we may be able to give employees increases if there was a justification for it.
What happened? Our language was being interpreted differently. In Korea, the word maybe means yes, but later. Consequently, the trust we had so carefully built up by being considerate was broken. Our lesson was that our Korean organization was looking for a definitive answer, and the preferred answer was YES.
Our second example of language understanding emerged during the same project. We learned that the word, seniority, had a different meaning. Seniority is tied to a person’s age, regardless of position within a fairly broad group of classifications. It was not uncommon for an older janitor to have a higher salary than a younger machine operator with the company service date. Understanding this differentiation was an important step prior to analyzing the data and developing a sellable recommendation.
The review of the workforce salaries helped set the stage for how we would transform their current seniority pay system to a pay for performance culture. We factored in our Korean cultural understanding of their philosophy and definition of value (age vs. skill) to develop a cooperative solution. To assist in the assimilation and acceptance, we devised a plan to introduce pay for performance over time.
In exchange, we moved employees into skill categories and developed a reward scheme to recognize their contribution. Based on their value to the organization. In these two examples, our base assumptions of language were tested. We recognized our listening filters were being driven on an unconscious level. To effectively assimilate the organization, we learned to state our positions differently, thereby, increasing shared understanding. Initially, it is a time consuming process; however, you will find the payoffs are trust and commitment.
This article was first published in Business Strategies Magazine in 2002.