Q: What are some strategies for managing international colleagues if I have never had an experience within their culture or country?
A: First, straighten out differences that can cause issues.
Make sure you have holidays that are celebrated in both countries on your calendars. Choose a common way to write dates and times. For instance, in the U.S., 2/4/18 is Feb. 4. However, people in other countries would read that date as April 2. Remind each other to note currency and measurement details, so you don’t assume meters when it’s feet or yuan when it’s dollars. Set norms for request response times (e.g., respond within 24 hours to e-mail requests).
Second, take time to get familiar with some of the cultural differences that often show up when managing people. If you work for a large company, you likely subscribe to an online program that provides this information. If not, check out resources such as “Cheat Sheet to 10 Cultural Codes from Around the World” by Andy Molinsky.
Think about how those differences might be showing up. For example, a common complaint I hear is that remote employees don’t raise issues with their manager. You might assume your employee lacks initiative, but that is likely inaccurate. In the U.S. we expect employees to raise issues; in some other countries, it’s unacceptable to challenge the boss. Your employee might be waiting for you to be direct and ask specific questions, and you might be waiting for them to raise issues. You will need to address this explicitly without relying on assumptions.
Third, trust and familiarity can make interactions easier, but those characteristics are hard to develop remotely. If you have a chance to visit in person, make sure to schedule time to be social — such as sharing a dinner. If you are unable to visit, allow time during a Skype call to show photos of children or pets. You could also “walk” the laptop or phone around the office to show your work environment.
In the U.S., we tend to get down to business. However, in many other countries relationships are key. By spending a few minutes on each call getting to know each other, you may end up getting the business done more efficiently.
Mary Maloney is an associate professor of management at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.