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Some call it “the elephant in the room.” When no one in the workplace mentions that certain something negative that everyone knows, it’s a sign. This article speaks to the power of voicing to improve communication among a group of employees working together virtually at one, 1933-start-up in Germany.

Voicing? Tell Us More…

For intercultures consultant, Adrienne Rubatos, who was interviewed for this article, voicing “means a courageous pronouncing of what you’re thinking, want, feel, etc.,” distinguishing it from standard feedback that focuses on others.

We first mentioned the practice of “voicing” in our Jan. 2014 article, “Leadership Beyond Borders: The Case of India in Cultural Transition.” As defined in that article, voicing is the act of explicitly addressing what one feels about another’s communications that they find either challenging or positive. In the Jan. article, intercultures consultant and leadership coach, Sreemathi Ramnath, advocated voicing as one essential piece towards creating an effective, global and virtual workplace, “Especially in a cross-cultural context involving collective cultures[i] [where] people think that tolerance and empathy are the right approach to take and they never voice their true opinions.“

Voicing, as used in this context, is a concept first developed by intercultures’ partners Line Jehle and Dr. Marcus Hildebrandt for effective virtual collaboration between culturally diverse teams.

Evolving the Modus Operandi of the Global Workplace

For a good number of our workplaces, voicing represents a culture change. For those familiar with Milton Bennett’s DMIS[ii], you’ll know that most workplaces operate in the stage of Minimization[iii]; for those who know the Tolerance Traffic Light model, it’s the state of “fake tolerance” within which colleagues tend to operate. Plainly communicating compliments or challenges is not (yet) a common workplace practice. In our global workplace, culturally diverse modes of operating must be intermingled with plain communication in order to help ensure shared understanding, engagement and performance. Of course, when done, voicing must be culturally and context appropriate.

Facilitating a Culture of Voicing

There’s a commonly held belief that there is sufficient knowledge among participants in every workshop to solve the challenges they face outside of the room; that participants hold the solutions to working better globally. In July 2014, this seemed to be the case among participants of a “Virtual Teams” workshop of senior-level employees who support the sales of high-tech, electronic test equipment and contribute to the organization’s annual sales of nearly US$ 2 billion. Within the span of a three-hour workshop, Adrienne Rubatos, an intercultures consultant, reflected back to her client issues which were at least unconsciously known and acted out among the group—and not being consciously managed. As an external consultant to the company, she described herself as an instrument by which workshop participants were able to “pronounce things and to put them on the table.” Though it was not necessarily her intention coming into the workshop, guiding the group through voicing ended up being their first and most challenging step toward improving intra-group communication. (See the image below for a peek at the expectations with which the group started their workshop.)

„We’re Not a Team!“

One success of the workshop was voicing on the part of participants that they were not, in fact, a team! Individual participants were asked to draw out how they saw the „team,“ which was the starting point for discussion. “A team solves a common task together,” said Adrienne. “In our case in this group…there is not a real, regular, joint desire what they are working for,” as in the case of a project. The group leader had expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of connection and support between what he described as a team. At the same time, group members and their respective direct reports were tasked to work independently to sell different products to distinct Asian markets; all flew on separate schedules to Asia looking to win their own customers; and, those who sat in the same office rarely saw one another. Viewing the group as a team set unrealistic expectations on their work process, accountabilities and sense of camaraderie. Still, the group shared an accountability to meet shared sales goals and would have to discover how to function with synergy as a virtual group.

Finding the Language That Fits the Experience

Another achievement of the workshop was that participants acquired the language to clearly talk about their experiences working virtually. “I think I found a very creative way of approaching in a very short period of time the virtual work,” said Adrienne. From the start of the workshop, she drew connections between participants’ comments and key words/ phrases relating to virtual teams and groups. Later in the workshop, Adrienne “introduced the soul of virtual teams [and groups]” by creating a visual board to tell the “story of what is important and how it related to some of the issues that had already been stated [by participants].” (See below for the image of Adrienne’s board of key words/ phrases relating to virtual teams and groups.)

The group’s experiences were connected with the key words/ phrases presented on the board when one participant unexpectedly shared a presentation that he had prepared in advance about best practices in virtual working. The participant used Adrienne’s colorful board to articulate his message. “He came to my board and stick colored stickers and said that this and this and this is what we have done”. (See below for the image of Adrienne’s board after it was used as reference by this participant.) Newly-learned language enabled participants to reach a deeper understanding of their group dynamics in working virtually.

Touching Upon the Intercultural

Voicing intercultural dynamics was another important step towards improved communication within the group. Adrienne took care to openly acknowledge intercultural differences in communication that were apparent during the workshop between the Brazilian, British, Chinese and German participants, some of whom had relocated to Germany years ago. Referring to cultural differences in communication, Adrienne said, “I did not miss what was important, but I did not go deeper because it was not my mandate.” At one point, one German team leader stated that criticism is not meant personally. “At that time I stopped,” said Adrienne, “and said, ‘Yes, but this would be very difficult to accept for many of us’. Then he smiled, he understood. The Chinese [some of whom had greatly acculturated to German modes of communication] nodded. We did not go deeper, but we did not let it go unmentioned.” Simply voicing such difference—in the moment—simultaneously gave acknowledgement to more than one professional reality in the group, and opened space for group members to revisit the conversation once they had returned to „business as usual.“

Business As Usual…But Better

The idea of the Virtual Teams workshop was that business as usual would be different upon the return of this group to their virtual workspace. As before, they would be accountable for meeting joint sales goals. Though as a result of the workshop, this intercultural, virtual group had opened opportunities for cooperation by practicing the act of explicitly addressing challenging characteristics of their communication—or lack thereof. Voicing such challenges helped both release known and unknown ideas about communication that were unproductive for the group, and invite conversation about how they could work better together. In future, perhaps the group will even begin to voice positive characteristics about their communication that no one’s saying…so that everyone knows!

We thank Adrienne Rubatos for her interview for this article and for sharing the story of her client workshop. Adrienne is an intercultures consultant specializing in Business and Organizational Development; an experienced trainer and coach who regularly presents at related conferences; and an instructor of global MBA students.

[i] Collective national cultures are those in which the group is of relatively more importance than the individual. According to the research of global business researcher Fons Trompenaars, Brazilian and Chinese national cultures, for instance, tend to be more collective than the relatively more individualistic British and German national cultures.

[ii] Milton Bennett’s Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity (DMIS) is a model which has evolved over time and describes the various ways in which people react to cultural difference.

[iii] Minimization is one stage of the DMIS that describes how people may respond to cultural difference. Minimization describes an ethnocentric perspective in which people minimize the cultural differences within a group and emphasize the commonalities of its members.

[iv] The „Closeness at a Distance“ LinkedIn group is designed for the benefit of academic and business professionals who seek to develop their knowledge and skills around intercultural, virtual groups, teams and networks on a global scale. Click here to request an invitation to the group.

The above article was included in the Sept. 2014 intercultures e-newsletter. 

Picture Source Title picture: Getty Images.

Picture Source Portrait of Adrienne Rubatos: Adrienne Rubatos.

All images taken during the workshop, shared courtesy of Adrienne Rubatos.