Hello! Love last week’s newsletter about speaking up in meetings. Do you have any advice for people managing employees in other cultures?

My company, based in the US, has a sizeable-and-growing office in India, and our team meetings always include them. Recently we tried scheduling some brainstorms to get everybody connected and motivated, and our APAC teammates spent the whole meeting on mute. This sent the managers spinning out and wondering how we failed our international teammates in terms of prep (there was a pre-read) or tone-setting. We struggled to find any resources online for managing cross-cultural teams. Any advice?

Andy: It’s not hard at all to picture myself in a situation like this. I’ve been in similar spin-outs after a meeting with an all US-based team, wondering: What’s going on? Where did I do wrong? Do I say something? Now? Later? Never? 

Emma: And layering on a stark cultural divide would make that spin-out even more spinny. I totally empathize with all the post-meeting cringing that probably occurred. This is an absolutely worthwhile question for you to grapple with — and also probably not one you’ll resolve overnight.

Andy: Yes, this is no *~*finger-snap outfit change*~* type of YouTube cut. Working in groups of people with more than one culture — be they from different countries, regions, offices, teams, classes, generations, backgrounds — is an ongoing endeavor and you’re going to be finding pieces of the answer over time. I love that you’re digging in and approaching with curiosity, and I also encourage you to relieve some of the pressure-cooker feeling of having to master cross-cultural workplace communication before your next brainstorm session. That one will also probably not go perfectly as planned, but hopefully you’ll feel more prepared.

Emma: Here’s something to consider: Do your APAC teammates also believe you failed them in prep? There’s a very real chance that staying on mute felt like a totally appropriate response to the situation.

I ran your question by my brilliant friend, Renee, who has spent her career in education and education policy in various parts of the world. (She’s also, helpfully, writing her PhD dissertation on a version of this very question.) She was not surprised at all that team members from another culture weren’t diving into your brainstorm meeting. “Shouting out random thoughts of questionable value is a very American thing,” she explained. “A lot of it comes down to values. Think about it: live brainstorming values novelty, time, quantity over quality, horizontal power relationships.”

Those things are all fine and good, but they aren’t the same values held everywhere.

Andy: And values are deep. I’m also thinking about the potential power differential between the two cohorts on your team. That’s another layer.

Emma: Absolutely. It might not be realistic — and probably even unintentionally arrogant — to expect any amount of pre-reading to change that.

Andy: For sure. I once ran a training session in another country and I wasn’t getting any participation. I’d ask a question, attentive and curious eyes looked back, but no one talked. I had to pause in the middle of the session to ask the group: Can you help me get up to speed? I’m asking questions and I feel like I’m not getting any participation. What am I missing and what should we do differently? 

The team very graciously clued me in: popping your hand up and being the first to say something, to stand out in that way, just wasn’t a thing. Everyone was happy to pitch in and share their ideas, as long as it was a group effort.

I had to change the room from one that was more performative to one that was more collaborative. I think our solution was for me to call on people and then do popcorn style. Once we were all in agreement that we were building something with input from everyone, the room was buzzing.

Emma: This is a truly incredible story to me. The concept of realizing a meeting was not going as planned, stopping the meeting, asking why in a way that got a real answer, accepting that answer, and using it to roll out a new meeting structure on the fly is… that is advanced-level. I don’t think I could have pulled that off.

Andy: Let’s be clear, it was not pure victory. I was simultaneously confronting a lot of personal horror that I had not thought to ask if any of the assumptions I was bringing into that training didn’t, ya know, apply in another work culture. Hello, Arrogant Andy, welcome to micro awareness. I definitely had that very specific kind of regret of learning something new, and knowing I could only apply it moving forward — not retroactively.

Emma: Another thing to think about: What are you looking to achieve?

One point of view might be something like: When our teams work together, we need to be working the same way. That’s a bit different than: We really need input from the APAC team before we move forward. What’s the best way to achieve that?

Andy: The difference there for me is that one is about needing the meeting to look and feel a certain way — which, like we talked about last week, keep interrogating that instinct — and the other is about getting to a particular outcome.

Emma: If for some reason you do need the former, it’s going to require a thoughtfully developed onboarding program full of explicit instruction and structure. A lot of the skills and tactics that we talked about last week apply: setting expectations early and often, making it safe to share, gently calling on folks, assigning different roles, trying non-verbal and/or anonymous participation.

Andy: Now, if it’s the latter, it’s going to require some sleuthing to build up your self-awareness on what values you might take for granted, and how you can flex your meeting style. The first thing I’d do is ask someone on the team: I noticed that everyone in the India office was on mute for the meeting. Can you help me understand? Learn how they share ideas, and the structure and flavor of their meetings. Maybe ask if you can sit in on one and observe.

Emma: With all this being said, I’m not psyched by the idea of you and a few other managers doing this alone. I am glad you’re owning your roles as leaders on the team, and I also want you to ask your company for help. I’d like to believe they’d give you as many tools as possible to fruitfully collaborate with your entire team, especially since you say there is a sizable-and-growing office in India.

Andy: Yes! Very much yes! If you take only one thing from this newsletter, let it be this: Your company should support you with training.

I say that knowing it would be hard for me to ask for it. It’s my first instinct to DIY, probably because that’s literally been a Value of most of the companies I’ve worked at — I’ve been evaluated on “Do More with Less” in performance reviews.

We need to ditch that mandate, especially when in reality it’s always Do a Really Hard Thing with Just About Nothing. Constructing an anti-racist, anti-white-supremacist, anti-Americentric workplace without any help sounds impossible. Don’t let them make you do it alone.