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Leading change through dialogue with an international mindset

by | Jun 4, 2024

When managing talent in global organisations, difficult conversations are inevitable. Marianne Curphey talks to business leadership coach Sarah Rozenthuler about her new book and the skills needed to communicate well across borders.

From addressing performance issues, arranging and monitoring assignments and navigating conflict to motivating hybrid teams across different geographies and time zones, how leaders approach conversations significantly impacts an organisation’s culture and effectiveness.

Navigating difficult conversations in the workplace

Sarah Rozenthuler is a business leadership coach, chartered psychologist, dialogue coach and author with over 15 years’ experience working with international teams. Her new book, ‘Now We’re Talking’, tackles the issues around dialogue and how to conduct it more effectively. It offers insightful and practical advice to leaders and managers.

It explains how to communicate effectively across diverse audiences and demonstrates how difficult situations can be handled to produce more positive outcomes.

“This is particularly important now that many teams are globally dispersed,” she explains. “Cultural differences and hybrid working mean effective communication is extremely important, but issues can become even more complicated if some team members are working in-person while others are online.”

Research has shown that about 60% of managers would like to increase their confidence to have a difficult conversation. Currently, 70% report avoidance on this issue. Without intervention, many issues in the workplace fester.

“It is unlikely that difficulties or grievances will go away or resolve themselves without intervention,” she says. “There are two main patterns observed in organisations when it comes to addressing difficult conversations. Either there is a tendency for managers to dive into them unprepared and end up worsening the situation. Or they try to avoid tricky issues altogether, hoping they will go away.

“This avoidance behaviour is quite common among managers, with research showing that 70% have at some point avoided difficult conversations,” she explains. “The lack of effective models or templates for handling such conversations exacerbates this problem, as managers often don’t know how to approach them successfully. However, problems rarely go away just because managers ignore them.”

Sarah emphasises that, when approached properly with preparation and purpose, dialogue can be used to improve decision making and communication within organisations.

“Research suggests that around half of decisions in organisations fail to achieve their goals, often due to various factors such as personality clashes or conflicting agendas,” she explains. “Yet effective dialogue can help by slowing down the process, allowing for a shared understanding of the underlying issues, and facilitating alignment and buy-in among stakeholders. This ensures that decisions are not only made, but also implemented effectively and that when decisions are agreed on, they have full co-operation and buy-in from team members.”

Watch Sarah’s interview at our Gala Dinner and Awards Ceremony 2024

What is authentic dialogue and why is it important?

Fortunately, there is a middle ground between the two extremes of either rushing into conversations unprepared or avoiding them altogether. It involves creating a reflective and safe space where individuals can engage in deeper listening and truthful speaking. This entails not only listening to others, but also being attentive to one’s own thoughts and feelings.

“When I think back over my own past corporate life, I can’t remember a difficult conversation that I have had with a manager that has gone particularly well,” Sarah says. “There is really no blueprint that we learn from our managers because they don’t know how to handle difficult issues either.”

Active listening is a key part of this approach. It is a skill managers can and should start to cultivate if they wish to be more effective. When people feel listened to, it can lead to a sense of feeling more settled and lower resistance, ultimately fostering better communication and decision making within organisations.

“There might be a personality clash, or you might have stakeholders or team members with very different agendas in a meeting. Careful listening and effective dialogue help to slow things down and create a shared understanding,” she says.

“That will help you uncover the real problem you need to solve. You might think you have got a recruitment issue, but actually, what is really underneath that is a retention issue caused by low morale. Through effective dialogue, you can work out what the problem is you really need to solve.”

Dialogue also helps decision-making by getting alignment so that the team feels a sense of ownership and the decision doesn’t unravel when the manager leaves the room, but actually gets implemented instead.

“We know that people can sometimes sabotage decisions or actions that they don’t agree with,” she says. “Maybe that’s done in secret. Maybe it’s done more openly, but if you haven’t got buy-in, then that decision is unlikely to be properly implemented.”

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Why an international lens is important for dialogue

Sarah says there are additional challenges that may arise in international settings. These include geographical separation, cultural differences, different time zones and varying attitudes towards timekeeping and hierarchy.

She highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding when working with diverse teams. Strategies for overcoming these barriers include establishing ground rules or group agreements to guide interactions and creating an environment that enables authentic dialogue.

“In some countries, having some informal time to build relationships, ask about family beforehand, is really important,” she explains. “So, if a meeting started late, it wouldn’t be too much of an issue, because certain cultures value that relationship-building process. In other cultures, I would absolutely make sure we start on time because if we began late, it would be considered very rude and the meeting would get off to a bad start.”

She says another issue in international settings can be the attitudes towards hierarchy.

“In some cultures, it’s important to really pay attention to the formality of hierarchy,” she says. “In that case, if I was facilitating a meeting, I would ensure that I gave the most senior person in the room some airtime early on.”

Another area of potential difficulty is around international teams where some people might be physically present and others dialling in remotely, sometimes while operating in a different time zone.

“I’ve done a lot of work internationally, and I’ve done a lot of work with multi-national, multi-cultural teams, and it is important to have ground rules or group agreements.

“That might be around ensuring equal airtime amongst team members because some cultures and some personalities are more chatty and extrovert and fill the room. In other cultures, women might hold back, or strict hierarchy might be especially important, along with the need to save face.”

With international teams, having social sensitivity, including reading nonverbal cues and understanding cultural nuances, becomes even more critical. Being attentive to what is not being said and interpreting nonverbal cues accurately fosters better communication and collaboration across team members.

“I’ve worked with teams where you have some team members in Singapore while others are in Argentina, and that is an 11-hour time difference,” she explains. “So even picking up the phone is an issue. Ensuring that the people who are dialling in and who are not physically present are included in the dialogue and decision-making is very important.”

How dialogue can help improve outcomes for assignments

International assignments often come with budget constraints, requiring managers to balance organisational resources with the needs of assignees. These constraints can create pressure to deliver results within limited financial means, leading to challenging conversations about how to allocate resources and what is expected of the assignee.

In this scenario, effective dialogue can help to foster a better understanding and ensure that assignees feel fully informed during the whole process. In addition, assignments may not always go as planned. Uncomfortable conversations may arise when addressing issues such as performance gaps, unmet expectations or budget issues. These conversations require openness, honesty and a willingness to address difficult topics constructively, Sarah says.

“Effective dialogue in the assignment process involves both the assignee and the employer sharing feedback on what has worked well and what hasn’t,” she says. “Adopting phrases like ‘what worked and what didn’t work’ instead of framing discussions as right or wrong promotes authentic dialogue.”

This approach encourages open communication and collaboration and may give managers insights they can use in the future.

Enhancing decision-making through authentic dialogue

Sarah emphasises the importance of creating a reflective and safe space for communication. Central to this approach is deep listening and allowing individuals to speak their truth, even when it is uncomfortable or unpopular. Authentic dialogue encourages genuine engagement and fosters mutual understanding, ultimately leading to more productive conversations and better outcomes.

“In workplace settings, reading the room is a key leadership skill,” she explains.  “It is important that a leader in a group setting is sensitive to the underlying issues and understands what is going on in the team dynamics. This can be particularly important if a conversation is starting to get stuck or beginning to derail. If the leader is attentive to that, then they can intervene earlier and more skilfully in order to refocus the conversation and get it back on track.”

She adds that being truly listened to can foster cooperation and reduce resistance, especially when team meetings turn tense. When individuals feel heard and valued, then they are more likely to engage constructively, even in challenging situations.

Avoiding difficult conversations allows issues to fester, leading to unresolved grievances and damaged relationships. These unresolved issues can negatively impact both individual wellbeing and organisational performance, creating an environment where people struggle to thrive.

With the rise of hybrid working arrangements, where some employees work remotely while others work in the office, authentic dialogue becomes even more challenging. The lack of real contact between team members, especially during informal interactions, poses a significant obstacle to effective communication and rapport-building.

What are the benefits of effective dialogue in international settings?

The benefits of effective dialogue include:

Building rapport: Using active listening, genuine curiosity, and asking open-ended questions.

Suspending judgment: Managers should strive to create a supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere where people feel able to express their concerns and needs without negative consequences.

Impact on performance metrics: Effective dialogue in high-performing teams correlates with positive outcomes, such as profitability and customer satisfaction ratings.

Enhanced wellbeing and satisfaction: Cultivating effective dialogue leads to improved wellbeing and satisfaction among international managers and team members.

Working with people who are neurodivergent: International managers need to be sensitive to the needs of neurodivergent team members. Creating inclusive environments and encouraging open communication are essential for ensuring the full participation and engagement of all team members.

“In an international team setting, it is even more important to be attentive to what’s not being said,” Sarah says. “It is about being aware of the nonverbal cues that you can pick up on. With global teams, you need to be able to interpret those cues in a variety of different cultural settings. That deep sensitivity becomes even more important when working with people from different cultures.”

In conclusion, navigating difficult conversations and enhancing decision making in international organisations require a shift towards authentic dialogue. It requires skilful intervention by managers to create a safe space and find common ground, especially in group meetings. By embracing open communication, deep listening and honest expression, organisations can become more resilient and conversations more productive.

Now We’re Talking’ is available from all good bookshops and Amazon.

Download our Leadership Supplement with interview coverage from the expert contributors and speakers at the forthcoming Turbocharging Performance masterclass.

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