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How an e-retailer manages messaging for a multicultural workforce

September 11, 2016 03:27 PM
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A natural evolution for most mature companies and brands is to become international. The diversity of ideas, opinions, and talent has powered many businesses to great success. As a global CEO in the trenches of rapid international scale-up with a mission to grow from a mid-size company to a $1B entity I have had to learn a few things to effectively manage agile teams for complex projects. It can be challenging with the devil in small details like getting the right messaging across in one language but the rewards are great.

As a British CEO living and working in Germany, with an e-commerce platform operating in 18 countries, I am lucky that my co-workers from 20 nationalities are all excellent English speakers and as an international company our first language is English. Although we’re allegedly speaking the same language, misunderstandings can sometimes occur because of cultural differences, or just because nuances of meaning can be harder to pick up.

1st Notable Culture Clash: UK vs. German communication styles

My first observation while working in Germany was that Germans are exceedingly direct as compared to UK staffers. Germans are always direct and honest about liking or disliking an idea and provide instant feedback. For example, my polite advice “you might want to find a different option” in feedback to a UK team, would be a subtle hint to give the UK team the chance to change a terrible idea.

However with that same approach during my first few months in Germany, some terrible ideas were almost implemented because the team was not getting the message that I did not like their approach, so they would continue to run with the old one until directly instructed to shift gears. A German boss would have just said, “terrible idea find a new one” as instant and direct feedback. The German staffers would not be insulted and would focus on a new approach. It cuts both ways in German culture—team members are very direct and will correct you or criticize you to your face; this is not rudeness but rather trying to be helpful. I admit that sometimes I would feel offended or disrespected until I took a step back and realized that it was a cultural nuance instead of a personal slight. 

2nd Notable Culture Clash: American/British English vs. German English

Eventually, we discovered a much bigger problem when English or Americans presented “concepts” as very loose ideas as derived from brainstorming or “big thinking". The German word “konzept” is much closer to a concrete plan with more detailed elements. Some meetings broke down when a German team expected to see a “konzept” and only got a loose “concept”. The difference is not a “C” or a “K” but a disconnect in expectations.

More recently, I suggested to a manager that a problem in the business should have been “approached with a bit more intelligence.” He was offended as he thought that I was calling him stupid—in fact I had been referring to insight from data intelligence.  I learned that Germans do not associate the word “intelligence” with data.  Many English words have double meanings, yet in German the two meanings have very different words. This can be problematic in critical strategies or for global corporate communications—we have learned to double-check the meaning that is being used with native and non-native speakers before sending out messaging on a corporate level.

Takeaways:

Even though many on your team may be fluent in English, it can be easy to forget that some nuances might be missed and misunderstandings, expectations and relationships can be impacted. Even the American vs. UK cultural dissonance is huge. Last year I was asked by one of the American team staffers, if they could bring their gun to work for self-defense. I laughed out loud until I realized he was not joking! It is just not a mindset that many EU workers would have but it is a view that many Americans hold and value as a personal freedom.

Be especially sensitive when discussing issues like health, holidays and work life balance. I have found that is very easy to come across in the US as a “bleeding heart liberal” who is likely to endanger a team’s job security 

Along with being slightly more direct than I would be in a British office, I have to pay attention to my teams’ reactions and make sure I’ve been clear by elaborating or following up to make sure there’s been no miscommunication even though we are all working towards the same goals, on the same team, and supposedly speaking the same language! I would not trade the occasional glitches in communications for the diversity, creativity and innovation that inspires our global workforce and keeps us at the forefront of global e-commerce innovation.

Web-only retailer Spreadshirt Inc. is No. 442 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 and No. 238 in the Europe 500, according to Top500Guide.com. 

 

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