ALC English Journal Article Jan 2013

Working With People From Abroad

QUESTION: “I work in a team with people from abroad. They are always pushy and selfish. How should I work with them efficiently?”

ANSWER: Although it can be challenging to work with people from abroad, quite honestly some of my colleagues from my own country irritate me immensely. Let’s not immediately blame the country of birth when someone acts like a jerk! Even within a single culture there are vast differences in personalities and work styles that can test the patience of teammates.

Blaming the country of birth makes this problem unsolvable. If the reason we have trouble working together is because we were born in different countries then it’s an “impossible” problem. When a problem seems “impossible” we tend to give up hope without even trying to solve it. My advice? Don’t attribute workplace difficulties to birthplace or cultural differences without considering other explanations.

Here are some approaches that can ease workplace relationships regardless of whether they are due to culture, personality quirks, or because you’re working with one of the roughly 4 % of human beings who are sociopaths.

Separate the facts from your interpretation of the facts. Words like “pushy” and “selfish” describe interpretations of behavior, not facts. While it’s natural to create a story that explains what we observe, our interpretation of other people’s motives are subject to enormous perceptual biases. If a co-worker eats the last piece of pizza that we’re sharing at lunch I might assume that they’re rude. But what are the facts? They simply ate the last piece of pizza!

Beware of the Fundamental Attribution Error (F.A.E.)!  The FAE is a well-known psychological phenomenon that makes our guesses about other people’s motives inaccurate. Human beings tend to blame other people’s frustrating behaviors on negative intentions or personality flaws, but we attribute our own annoying behavior to external causes out of our control. The FAE conveniently allows us to negatively judge others while justifying our own behavior – but it’s not very helpful if you want to work well as a team.

Think like a scientist. Consider the situations where you believe your teammates are being rude. Write down their exact behaviors and language, as a scientist would, focusing only on the observable facts. Afterwards use the next tool to make up a more compassionate story about their motives and increase your empathy for your teammates.

Assume Positive Intent (API). Imagine that there is a perfectly good reason why your teammates act as they do, and even you would act in exactly the same way in the same circumstances. Invent a story in which their behavior makes sense to you. Use your imagination!

Caution: The point isn’t to guess their true motivation – it’s to open your mind to other explanations besides “They are truly selfish and pushy!” For example, the guy eating the last piece of pizza might have had to skip breakfast, or run out of money for food, or have poor vision – so he didn’t realize it was the last piece! My “API story” of last resort is to consider the possibility that the irritating behavior is the result of a brain tumor that is negatively affecting his judgment.

There’s no doubt that working with people from other countries is more challenging than working with those who share a common culture. But don’t immediately assume that culture is at the root of any problematic interactions. Avoid the FAE and practice API to improve your ability to work with people from any culture – including your own!


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