9 tips for managing impatience in a multicultural team

Impatience in a multicultural team typically leads to exclusion and withdrawal of some members.  This results, of course, in the reduced flow of information and ideas, and sub-optimal use of talent on the team.

I once observed a multicultural team during a business simulation in the UK.  Most of the members in the team were quite fluent in English, except for two Spanish managers who had some difficulty expressing their ideas.  In the early phase of the simulation, which was focused on building market share in different cultures, I saw the Spanish managers working very hard to be heard.  Very quickly, the more fluent English-speaking members took over the discussions and decision making.

The simulation went through several rounds and the team I was observing continually lost market share until they ended the simulation with zero.  They all looked very despondent and were critical of each other.  At one point in the review discussion, one of the native English speakers looked apologetically at the Spanish managers and said, “Oh my, what a mess we got into (slapping his head) and all because we didn’t listen carefully enough to what you were trying to tell us.  We got impatient and carried on walking blindly over the cliff.”  The outcome was not only that the team lost, but that in the process they lost the participation of two valuable members who decided that there was no use in trying to contribute.

At a workshop in Spain (different company) a Spanish manager expressed his frustration to the American participants – “Listen to me!  Because our English may not be as fluent as yours doesn’t mean we’re stupid and have nothing of value to add.  Slow down and listen!”

Impatience is irritation or even hostility toward something that actually or potentially causes delay.  We’ve all experienced the feelings of frustration that can arise when our expectations for progress are not being met, or the fear that we’re going to be missing out on something (especially not winning).  The need to be supercharged has become an epidemic in many cultures; everything becomes a crisis that must be dealt with immediately.  If there is no real crisis, then create one.  An underlying message I was given when I first started working in the States was “Do it yesterday.”

There are multiple potential causes of impatience on a multicultural teams – different orientations to time and decision making, different communication styles like direct and indirect (not just fluency), different orientations to hierarchy, and differences in problem solving to name a few.

In coping with different fluency levels what are some of the things we can do?

  1. Be empathetic: trying to communicate in a language that is not one’s own can be very stressful, particularly if you feel you are being judged negatively.  Show support by not interrupting and trying to finish the other person’s sentences.  What you’ll hear is what you’ve said which may be completely wrong.  Put yourself in the other person’s position; what fluency do you have in their language?
  2. Suspend judgment: Never jump into thinking the other person is somehow inferior or has nothing to contribute.  Be careful of your body language which can communicate in a fraction of a second what you really feel.  He or she may be the one with the most expert knowledge on the team or the most creative.  Give others the kind of support and respect you would appreciate in similar circumstances.
  3. Increase your tolerance for ambiguity: When communicating with others who share our language, we can usually assume that a high level of shared meaning is present without too much effort.  With two or more languages on a team, the potential for ambiguity increases dramatically and shared meanings must be negotiated.
  4. Mix fluencies: Try not to form a team in which those who don’t speak the ‘official’ team language fluently become isolated.   Bring in other team members with greater fluency so that they can support each other.
  5. Don’t be afraid of silence:  Give people time to form ideas in their own language before trying to translate into the ‘official’ language of the team.  Don’t forget the Japanese saying, “Talking is silver, silence is gold.”
  6. Educate your managers: Many people complain to me that their manager back at head office doesn’t understand that multicultural teamwork can take longer.  Invite managers into your team meetings to see/hear the process for themselves.  I’ve even said to a manager, “Would you like a half-baked answer now to go to your boss with, or would you like the better answer that will follow?”  Risky, I know!
  7. Give less fluent speakers different options for contributing:  Some are more fluent writing than speaking.  Some can better express their ideas visually.  Some are better contributing anonymously.  If you have the budget, think about bringing in a translator, or using some of the more sophisticated translation software.
  8. Don’t try and solve the communication problems by yourself: engage the team in finding solutions.  You don’t have all the answers, and never will.
  9. Be flexible and creative: One team I was working with (made up of South Koreans and Americans) was having trouble not with fluency per se, but with accents.  The solution they arrived at was to make much more frequent use of Instant Messaging.  We are so used to meetings being talk-centric, but with new technologies they don’t have to be.

Although I have written somewhat negatively about impatience, it is important to recognize that impatience can have a positive role to play in our lives.  It can drive us to achieve more than we imagined; on multicultural teams, however, the outcomes are most likely to be negative and costly.

If we are to manage our impatience we need increased self-awareness:

  • In what circumstances on my team am I most likely to experience impatience?  Why?
  • Are there certain kinds of people or behaviors that trigger my impatience or make it worse? Why?
  • What physical, mental, and behavioral changes do I tend to experience when I’m impatient?  What reactions am I most able to control?
  • What the costs of my impatience to myself and the team’s performance?

Challenging our own impatience is a difficult task; it requires what US Admiral Hyman Rickover referred to as “courageous patience“.

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About the Author

Terence Brake

Terence Brake is an author in the global learning & development field and has over 20 years experience helping executives to work better across cultures.

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