Delivering Bad News Across Cultures

7/14/2015

One of the hardest parts of working on any team is delivering bad news. However, when working on a diverse team with different cultural preferences around communication, it can be even harder.

When a team leader must deliver bad news, it is important to take the rest of the team’s cultural orientations into account.

Let’s look at an example from an international team whose leader has learned that the project his group is working on has been cancelled:

Fernando, a Brazilian, has moved to India to head a systems integration initiative at his company’s Bangalore office. Fernando set up a team of local software engineers from within the company. The team worked diligently, often putting in extra hours, and completed nearly 75 percent of the project. Fernando’s director back in Sao Paolo felt that the team’s work was of a high quality, and seemed very pleased.

However, very suddenly one day, Fernando’s director informed him that, due to recent economic pressures, the organization was changing its priorities, and the project was being terminated immediately. Fernando felt deeply disappointed and knew that his project team would be demoralized by the news.

Fernando knew that if he wanted to break the news in the most effective and least upsetting way possible, he had to take his Indian colleagues’ communication preferences into account. Before travelling to Bangalore, Fernando had printed out the Cultural Navigator’s India country guide, where he was able to see a convenient listing of India’s cultural norms and read in detail about communication preferences in the country’s business sphere. Thanks to this information, Fernando knew that, as part of a collectivistic-oriented society, Indians identify themselves in terms of their group. They may have felt a collective sense of failure if they did not fully understand why the director terminated the project. In addition, while cooperative as a whole, Indians can also be individually competitive and may have felt that they could have tried harder to complete the project before termination occurred.

When it came time to break the news, Fernando decided to address the positive aspects first: The team had worked hard and completed most of the project, and the quality of their work had been excellent. He pointed out that the termination was not because of them but rather because of things beyond their control. He acknowledged that the decision was a difficult one for the director, but that it had to be done.

The team handled the news well, though some team members later expressed in private to Fernando that they were worried about the cancellation’s impact on their careers. He assured them that their jobs were safe and that the work they did as part of the team was acknowledged as good.  

Fernando considered his wrap up of the project a success and was glad he had taken into consideration the communication styles of his Indian team members before letting them know about the project cancellation.

Whether on a local or international team, delivering bad news is difficult. But taking into account the cultural preferences of a group’s members helps make the process more effective and less difficult.