Case Study: Communication Protocols

A multinational team in the United States: On this team, a Japanese engineer was getting increasingly frustrated with his American manager. He sent repeated formal emails to the manager requesting action, but did not get any ‘appropriate’ response. After weeks of such frustration, he became so upset that he began questioning the personal qualities and worthiness of the American manager.

Analysis: What had happened was that the Japanese engineer was using a formal writing style (in English) in communicating with the American manager. He formatted his rather long messages with a ‘hello, how are you doing’ introduction, and then a general purpose middle section, and only at the very end of the letter did he make his actual request for action. This is very polite in Japanese terms, but clearly misunderstood by the American manager.

The American manager had the mindset that any email coming in would have the most important information at the top of the text, if not in the subject line. When the long emails would arrive from the Japanese, he scanned top-down and not seeing any call to action, often would not respond. When he did respond, his messages were terse (consistent with his company’s style), and did not address the request that was sent by the Japanese engineer.

The Japanese engineer quietly got angrier and angrier, but did not openly address the issue with the American manager. When the American manager finally found out (through a third party intervention), he was completely surprised and apologetic.

In this case an awareness of cultural norms by both parties could have helped. No training was given to the team, so the Americans communicated with the international team members in the same way that they did with their native colleagues. Having agreed-upon communication standards, and a dedicated manager for resolving this kind of issue could have also helped.

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Kevin Ready

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