International Management Skills: The Importance of Understanding Cultural Differences

Cultural differences and different languages can be challenging when leading a team remotely. Whether your team is based over different continents or all over the world, your communication skills will help you to keep your people motivated at all times. 

As a manager of a multi-cultural and international team of people your understanding of their culture, their clients and the way of doing business in their part of the world is your key to success. 

You may have come across 'lost in translation' situations where you have lost business, and you want to kick yourself because you didn't do your homework prior to closing the deal. 

Managing an international team and business can be a different ball game and at times may require a different skill set; however the satisfaction you'll get out of it will be even greater and it feels like the world is your oyster when you succeed. 

The best leader in the world will fail miserably if she is unable communicate to her team. 

The importance of the skill of communication lies in the fact that it is not a discrete skill.  Communication is inextricably linked to all the other leadership competencies.  With good communication skills you will raise your profile in all aspects of your leadership role.  

So, we look at how to hone the art and craft of language.  We learn to speak clearly and to present logical and compelling arguments. We develop our style and focus on the content of what we have to communicate.  

Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  

But there is a lot more to it than that. 

It is not only when we speak that we are communicating.  Whenever we are around other human beings, communication is taking place.  When we are watching the CEO’s presentation; when we are waiting for the coffee to brew; even when we are standing in the corner of the room, attending to our own private thoughts, we are communicating – whether we like it or not! 

We are NEVER not communicating. Body language – it’s more than catching the eye of a stranger across a crowded room! 

The average person speaks for a total of about 10 to 11 minutes a day and the average sentence takes only 2.5 seconds. But human beings make 250,000 facial expressions per day. 

And the experts tell us that non-verbal signs have FIVE times the impact of verbal signs. 

Body language has words, sentences and punctuation.  And just like the written and spoken word, one element of body language can have a variety of meanings – depending on the situation, the manner in which it is conveyed, and what comes before and after.  And body language is not only eye contact and gestures – posture and even clothing can speak to you about the person you are observing. 

And people’s body language depends on their cultural background just as much as their verbal language does. 

Perhaps you have experienced a similar scenario to this: 

You are presenting your new project proposal to the international management team. The team is made up of a mix of cultures and nationalities, and you are careful to deliver your message clearly and simply; you know that it has to be received and assimilated by people with a wide range of different communication styles. 

Among the team members are two Directors, both of whose buy-in is essential in order for you to proceed.  One of the Directors sits without moving throughout the presentation. She leans back relaxed in her chair, looks impassively at your slides, asks no questions and makes no notes.  The other Director seems alert and inquisitive. He interrupts you several times to ask pertinent questions, makes notes, and comes back to things you said earlier. He asks the opinion of other members of the team, getting them engaged and using them as a sounding-board for his ideas and comments. 

Clearly, you think, we have one Director who is practically on board, and one whose interest has not even been aroused. 

“Any questions?” you ask at the end of your presentation.  The lively Director replies immediately, “You’ve given a great presentation, with a lot of information. There’s no need for questions; I have all I need in order to go away and think about it.”  

Then the quiet Director speaks: “I have only one question. How soon can we start the project?” 

All top-level executives are good decision-makers; they would not be at the top if they were not.  But not all executives will make decisions in the same way.  Mr Lively’s background and culture have produced someone who makes decisions by verbalising, questioning, listening to his own ideas, and bouncing ideas off his colleagues.  Mrs Quiet comes from a culture where decision-making is internalised and the spoken word is used sparingly and chosen carefully. 

There is no “right” and “wrong” in different cultural behaviours such as this; there is no “good” and “bad” about different ways of assimilating information and taking action.  For you as a successful manager, the essential thing is to develop the skill of recognising, appreciating and working with these various styles, in order to successfully achieve the result your company needs. 

The body language of different cultures is a fascinating subject.  “People watching” is not only an enjoyable pastime – what you observe will help you to build up essential knowledge about yourself and others. 

The first scientific study of nonverbal communication dates back to 1872 when Charles Darwin wrote his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Darwin argued that all mammals show emotion in their faces. The most widely referenced study was by Albert Mehrabian, who pioneered the understanding of communication in the 1960s. Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell also played a key role in understanding the impact of nonverbal communication-what he called "kinesics." 

Put the study and skill of non-verbal communication to your own benefit and use: observe people in a business meeting, look at their different communication styles. Bear in mind their cultural differences, their business and personal backgrounds – watch how every aspect of what you know about them is influencing their own personal non-verbal communication style. 

Your body language can be your most effective means of communication – or miscommunication.  Learn to know how strong its impact can be.  Use it to your advantage – and don’t let it betray you. 

Using the power of communication to deliver a successful presentation 

Put the verbal communication skills that you have acquired during your leadership career together with the knowledge of non-verbal signs that you have observed in yourself and your colleagues.  They will combine to become your key to giving a first-class presentation and successfully winning your colleagues over. 

A few guidelines will keep you on top before, during and after your presentation: 

Before the presentation:

  • Socialise your ideas informally before the official meeting takes place.  Unofficial pre-meetings give you the opportunity to sell your ideas and make sure there are personal benefits for each stakeholder. And individual conversations can more easily be customised to fit a specific cultural background. The more certain you are that your partners are on board with you, the more relaxed you will be when it comes to making the presentation. And this will show in your body language! 
  • Do your homework!  Know who will be in the room.  Know to whom you are communicating – know their cultural background; where they fit in the company and in the project; and most important, know the communication style that will work best for them. 

During the presentation:

  • Make sure you understand what is in their mind and what is on their agenda.  The pre-dominant thought of every human being on this planet is: what’s in it for me?  Making sure that there is a personal benefit in it for the other person, is THE most important requirement for good persuasion! Respect their immediate needs first, before thinking about achieving your objectives. 
  • Provide the right USPs – unique selling points – and make sure the right people know about it. Bear in mind that you may need to use different selling points for different players. 
  • One step at a time.  People will be more easily persuaded if you ask for one thing at a time. Keep the whole list to yourself, and feed the items to them one by one. Start out with something small before moving on to negotiate the bigger favours. 

After the presentation:

  • Never forget the power of silence. “Silence speaks a thousand words”. Know when it is time to stop talking – and let your body language show the confidence of your convictions, and finish the job of persuasion for you.

Diana Vanbrabant is an Executive Coach and trainer based in Paris. As Managing Director of ETACC: 'The European Training and Coaching Company', Diana works with clients based in Europe, America and the UK. Her high quality training courses include topics such as public speaking, motivational speeches and people management skills – as well as cross-cultural business skills and international leadership skills.

On 22-23 May, Diana will be running a course in central Paris on Managing an International Team, targeted at managers and directors who want to get the best out of an intercultural and international team. The seminar will cover:

  • How best to engage with different nationalities and cultures 
  • Excellent international communication skills that make you a respected leader 
  • How to give your team the right direction, guidance and motivation 
  • Tips and management techniques on how to lead a remote team 
  • Leadership skills – how to optimise the performance of your team 

For more details, click here. To register call (+33) e-mail

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