3 Steps to Making Your Value Known When Working with Western Cultures

The Head of Project Management, an American named Michael, has called for a team meeting to discuss the details of an upcoming new project that is scheduled to begin in two weeks’ time. He has asked the team to be prepared to cover all aspects of the project – time, resources, issues – so that he gets a clear idea of what needs to be done next. 

Michael:  Shila, how does your department feel about this project?
Shila: Um…we are okay with it.
Michael:  But, how do they feel about the overtime that will be involved? Or what about the resources that you might need?
Shila: As long as they are compensated for overtime work, they have no objections. As for resources, I think we have enough for the moment.
Michael:  Are you sure? The project may require more people than what you have in your team.
Shila: The extra workload will be on the administrative side, so we’ve already spoken to the Talent Management team who has a ready pool of interns that can be used for this.
Michael:  Alright then. Sayid, does HR anticipate any major challenges to this project?
Sayid: Mm…No, not really.
Michael:  Has the project codes been created? Will there be problems to cross-border charges from the finance side?
Sayid: No problem with project codes. But we are still waiting for a confirmation from Finance.
Michael:  Did they say when they’ll get back to you?
Sayid: Within the week.

 What do you notice about the way the conversation above unfolded? While both Shila and Sayid have ready information at hand, they required continuous prompting from Michael to unravel the full situation in detail. Why is that so? How would an American manager like Michael view such a style of communication?

Malaysians are generally known to be indirect communicators, often preferring to speak in generalities rather than in specifics. This style of communication imposes a certain expectation on the receiver of the information – one has to read between the lines of what is being said to catch what is not being said. By saying that things are alright, both Shila and Sayid were actually indicating that they have things under control and have made the required contingency plans.

However, direct communicators like Michael will likely find it difficult to analyse the message for underlying meanings since he is more accustomed to direct and specific answers. He might find the need to prompt for the answers as something elementary or even frustrating, which can cause him to have a negative view of the Malaysian communication style. Therefore, how can Malaysians meet the expectations of their Anglo, Germanic or Nordic managers and adapt to communicating with cultures that are used to a more direct and straightforward approach?


  1. Understand the value of speaking in specifics.

Providing a clear and concise explanation or opinion leaves the receiver of the message in no doubt of your meaning and intent. It’s much like placing an order for your food and telling them to exclude chilli, coriander or anything else that you dislike eating – they know exactly how you like your food to be served. In like manner, when you give a comprehensive answer that deals in specifics, your manager is able to assess your understanding on a particular matter quickly and this in turn allows him to make clear and effective decisions.

  1. Determine when direct communication is more advantageous.

The key is adapting your communication style, not changing it entirely to suit someone else. As such, while your indirectness can be appreciated at other times, determining specific situations in which a more direct approach is more advantageous will be prudent. For example, getting right to the issue when there is a critical problem saves time and allows for a quick response to remedy the situation. Providing detailed feedback during team meetings accelerates the discussion and decisions that are to be made. Giving precise instructions when you’re training someone else eliminates the risk of mistakes. Learn when your manager wants you to give a direct answer, then remember it and do so the next time a similar situation occurs.

  1. Watch for the results.

Each time you make an effort to step out of your comfort zone and be a little more direct in your actions, look out for the rewards of doing so. Meetings may operate more effectively, decisions could be made more quickly, you may be assigned more responsibilities and your value as an employee will be raised in the eyes of your manager.

With the above in mind, how could Shila and Sayid have handled the conversation differently?

Michael:   Shila, how does your department feel about this project?
Shila:  The team has been briefed about the possible overtime work and they’re agreeable to the compensation. We may not have enough resources, so we’ve made arrangements for additional support to care for the administrative duties.
Michael: Great, sounds like you’ve got things under control. Sayid, does HR anticipate any major challenges to this project?
Sayid: Nothing major as we’ve done the necessary preparations. We just have one issue with the cross-border charges but we’ve addressed it with Finance and they’ll get back to us within the week. I’ll let you know as soon as they do.
Michael:  Excellent. Now, let’s look at what we need to decide for cost estimates…

It’s important to keep in mind that when your Anglo, Germanic or Nordic managers ask questions during meetings, they appreciate information that is presented in a comprehensive and specific manner. This will increase your value contribution in the eyes of your direct culture managers and ensure you are on track to greater career opportunities. They will then feel comfortable in going ahead and making decisions. Such a communication style demonstrates that you have thought through the whole scenario – pros and cons, consequences, outcomes – and your answers reflect depth of thinking and consideration. Understandably, it can be a challenge to go against what is culturally built into you. That is why our various cross-cultural training courses are specifically designed to address these challenges and help you become an effective global communicator.

By: Boleh Blogger