How to Navigate Team Conflict Across Language and Culture

Michael Glazer is a Tokyo-based Senior Consultant whose client work spans 15 countries across four continents. Learn more about Michael here.

We all know that working and leading diverse teams can be both rewarding and tough. One common challenge I hear from non-Japanese leaders here in Japan is, in their words, dealing with a culture issue that is interfering with achieving an important team goal. They seek outside expertise on cross-cultural communication to help solve their problem. After talking with them and their team members, what I found is that in most cases the real problem is something else. Leading across cultural, language and other boundaries just makes the issue harder to spot. Let me share a typical example.

One of my clients is a large Europe-based healthcare company. The client’s Asia clinical sciences division was falling behind schedule moving multiple new compounds through the company’s R&D pipeline. At the same time, the regional director was struggling to decipher complaints from the team members in Japan about working beyond capacity and excessive complexity within the daily team operations. After two months of trying unsuccessfully to get the team’s go-to-market timeline back on track, the director approached me for support.

Superficially, the issues did appear to be related to cross-cultural communication differences. For example, the director told me that while Japanese team members would acknowledge that the team was “over capacity,” they didn’t give specifics. They did say they would try to do their best to catch up on their work to meet deadlines. And no one on the team volunteered suggestions to the director. The director concluded that the indirect comments and the absence of anyone taking the initiative to mean the issue was a cross-cultural communications issue. His hypothesis was that if he and the local teams could flex their communication styles toward each other, they could work more productively together. And this hypothesis prompted him to ask me and PFC to provide cross-cultural communications skills training.

I was not convinced that culture was the core issue, so the client and I agreed to collect more info from the team before deciding on a course of action. When my colleague, Yukiko Kuroda, and I spoke with team members we learned that the director himself initiated a reorganization of the regional team. He also designed many of the processes and the team’s job role matrix. This left us with the impression that cultural differences probably played a role in the director not getting the answers he wanted, but they were not the main issue itself. By the end of our interviews, we discovered that three operational issues were contributing to the team’s low efficiency. And the low efficiency prevented the team from meeting its time commitments.

How can we adjust our communication style to get the info we need in similar situations?

  • One way is to depersonalize questions by asking questions like "what can be done?" instead of "what do you think?" If we have a hypothesis that the complexity of team processes is slowing things down, we can then ask questions like “which processes feel complex to you? When do you feel the complexity? How does it affect team efficiency?”
  • A related approach is gathering the information in a way that focuses on team-based input rather than individual feedback. Traditionally, Japanese organizations tends to be hierarchical, so workers might be sensitive about saying anything that could disturb the stability between seniors and juniors in a team. Giving direct upward feedback, for example, might feel uncomfortable or even risky to some. More anonymous approaches, like asking the medical writing team to collaborate to give one set of feedback as a team might work better. Or, as our client did, he hired a neutral third party (me and my colleague) to collect the information for him.

You can read more here about other techniques for gathering information from your Japanese team members when you don’t speak Japanese. We incorporated many of these techniques into how we asked the team for the information necessary to make sure we could address the team’s most important needs. The first two steps we took were to:

  • First, understand the current situation accurately. While it might seem obvious, we were careful not to blindly accept that the first issue presented as the true need, or even the full truth. It is important to ask good questions to understand the context and what is important. Take care to understand which data are facts and which are assumptions.
  • Second, identify problems. Use your understanding of the current situation to identify problems. As you start to define the problems, be sure to separate individuals from the problems themselves. Leaders do a disservice to their goals and our fellow teammates if they define problems in terms of who is involved. I remember reading an inspiring story about how Alan Mulally used this technique to help turnaround Ford after the 2008 financial crisis. He would say, “So-and-so has a problem, but he isn’t the problem. Who can help him fix it?”

With this new information in hand, we agreed to run a one-day workshop to allow the leader and team members to move to consensus on what to do about each issue. Through structured dialogue and discussion, team members analyzed the causes of the issues, generated options and formulated four concrete recommendations to improve team efficiency. The recommendations ranged from creation of a new role to outsourcing specific non-core tasks.

At the end of the workshop, team members presented their recommendations in person to the regional and global heads of the division. The two directors approved all four recommendations on the spot, and implementation began the following week.

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