Great communication is essential to good business practice and yet so many Middle Eastern firms suffer from what we can call the ‘fog of war’. What is this, how can we spot it early on and what can we do to prevent it causing poor performance in our business?
The best performing companies share many factors but we’ll focus on just one in this blog – Great communication. With out great communication everything else suffers. It is the glue that holds firms together and the lubrication that makes performance flow from person to person.
Let me begin by recounting a story of the blue stripes.
One day in my business I was briefing my production manager on the striped frosting I wanted applied to our conference room. To make matters easier I drafted the design as a schematic and as a further visual aid I coloured the glass in a blue gradient and the frosting were in semi opaque white stripes over the blue gradient – a similitude to the final finished frosting – or so I thought.
I sat with the production manager and discussed where I wanted the frosting and explained my illustrative drawing, pointing to the scale and touching the glass wall of the conference room to point out the positioning of the frosting versus the picture. From our conversing I felt assured the glass would be frosted as per my specification.
After a few further update meetings in which we had discussed the frosting project (design, scale, supplier estimates, fit out scheduling and final approved quote), my production manager said the “blue stripes will look great”. I asked him to explain what he meant by ‘blue stripes’ and, after a head-in-hands moment and a few ‘OMFG’s, I finally managed to get my Production Manager to understand my briefing and what my image was illustrating.
I was taught a very useful lesson in Middle Eastern comprehension. Take nothing for granted. Ever.
This original article first appeared in Entrepreneur Middle East.
The art of communication is the language of leadershipJohn Humes
Few companies in the Middle East have great communication
Ironically, one of the first things that becomes quite clear when you start working in the Middle East is just how much confusion surrounds everyone in the work place. Uncertainty seems to cloud every day and almost every decision. In your first business in the Middle East you may think that it’s just your company that’s riddled with confusion but then you start a second and a third and before long you recount how almost every interaction in the Gulf is tinged with uncertainty, misdirection or total confusion.
For everyone in the region this must be a frustration, for clients an annoyance and for business leaders, a real cause for concern. Getting a coffee order wrong or missing a dish from your starter course is a daily frustration we can all deal with but for an entrepreneur, trying to get and then keep a firm off the ground, daily confusion is a real cost business leaders can ill afford.
How linguistics can affect great communication
Linguistics is clearly a key factor in regional miscomprehension. An insight we discovered is almost everyone in the Middle East is talking to each other in a foreign language. While English is the common tongue and de facto business language, actual native speakers are few. Everyone’s comprehension is subject to translation; every order and instruction is being translated and a lot can go wrong. For an illustration of the issues with comprehension, try to share a 13-digit telephone number with someone else. How many times does it take to get it right? Simple specifics like a telephone number or email address typically require a few goes to get right. Expand this situation to your detailed and specific brief and you can begin to imagine how little comprehension should be expected between people of the same tongue; now add in a translation.
How idioms can detract from great communication
Another linguistic issue native English speakers should concern themselves with is their frequent and imaginative use of idioms. Idioms are phrases and layered language devices, which are commonly used by native speakers but are quite impenetrable by your average second language speaker. Raining Cats and Dogs is an idiom, for example. “Lets be clear about this” sounds perfectly normal to a fluent English speaker but to someone with basic English comprehension it can be hard to understand. Broken down into none idiomatic language this statement actually says “let us become transparent concerning this” which doesn’t mean what the speaker intended.
Great communication and cultural differences
Comprehension issues are manifold and can be considered from both linguistic and cultural perspectives alike. Culturally many Arabs don’t like to reconfirm things because lack of comprehension might be seen by some as a sign of weakness. Persons from Asia, especially Indian sub-continentals, often consider that asking their senior questions is disrespectful. An English native speaker (American, Canadian, South African, Antipodean or Brit) will naturally assume a nodding head or affirmative reply to mean that the recipient has fully understood and not consider reconfirming the instruction because culturally this would assume that the listener has below par comprehension skills or is stupid. Finally, the Filipino mindset has its own cultural quirks. The typical Filipino worker aims to make you happy no matter what the circumstances. So if they didn’t hear correctly it’s no problem as long as you are happy or show no visible displeasure with the outcome.
Multiply these cultural and linguistic issues together and you have the causation of some fantastic misalignment. We can begin to understand why business leaders in the Middle East often complain that they are not understood by their teams. So is there a remedy leaders can rely on? Is there a way through the miasma? Well we have realized a few and offer up this simple checklist for reducing confusion in your business.
Great communication – a check list:
- Lower your expectations of comprehension. If your recipient can grasp 3 out of 5 of your instructions accurately the first time you are doing well. Brief in and check up often. It’s not so much micro management as the frequent steerage of an eternal beta.
- Consider the cultural etiquette of your recipient and how they deal with miscomprehension of a senior’s instructions.
- Remember we are all communicating in a foreign language so use simple, idiom free language. Explain what you mean in different ways. If you need to use troubling words explain what they mean and get the recipient to own their understanding of those terms.
- Get your team to repeat your order in their own words, to explain what you meant rather than just blindly repeat your request and then ‘debrief and debrief’ until they can clearly comprehend all your points correctly in ways which are meaningful to them.
- Remind your team that it’s ok not to understand and get your people to practice saying “I’m sorry, I didn’t fully understand that last bit, can you rephrase it for me”?
- If all else fails, don’t deviate from the items on the menu! Just point and smile!
Clear communication is a rare commodity in the Middle East and that should be quite alarming to business leaders.