8 Practical Tips for Israelis Working with People from Other Cultures
- Two ears, one mouth:
God gave us two ears and one mouth – so we could use them accordingly and listen twice as much as we speak. In business discussions, the other side expects to be asked questions, listened to, and have interest shown in what they say. The best questions are open-ended (rather than yes/no); much can be learned from the answers when you really listen. We also have to wait a few seconds every time the other person speaks – to make sure they really have finished expressing themselves. In other (non-Israeli) cultures, people actually take a breath and pause between sentences.
- The power of words:
Before speaking, it’s best to take a moment to plan out our words and sentences. It’s important to remember that straightforwardness is often viewed as rudeness by other cultures. In the multicultural workplace, it’s best to think before we speak, and not say everything we think. When we do speak, the following guidelines are recommended:
- Address the issue, not the person:
When there’s a problem, address the issue and not the person “at fault.” For example:
Personal: “Tal, I expect you to arrive on time for our weekly meetings.”
Impersonal: “Our meetings start on time; I expect everyone to arrive early and prepared every week.”
- Add question marks:
It’s better not to make statements or demands, but rather to give a feeling of partnership and respect. Try to explain what the goal is, what’s been done so far and what the current expectation is. Modal verbs at the beginning of the sentence, and a question mark at the end, are useful for this purpose. For example:
Not: “You need to get that report to me before Thursday.”
But: “It’s important that the data reach the head office by Friday so they can start processing it before the annual conference. Could you please get your report to me before Thursday, so I can compile everyone’s material and it all on time?
- Address the issue, not the person:
- Early is on time:
In many cultures, being on time is considered basic and imperative. Arriving on time signifies respect, caring and professionalism. There is a saying: “On time is late; early is on time.”
Sticking to every timetable is expected – whether a scheduled phone call or a scheduled delivery – and any delay is viewed negatively, but should at least be reported as soon as possible in advance.
- Manage meetings like a pro:
So…arriving on time to meetings is important, but that’s not all!
Before the meeting:
- If you’re the facilitator of the meeting, make sure to send background material and updates to all the participants.
- If you’re a participant, make sure to arrive prepared by reading all the relevant material, correspondence and summaries beforehand.
During the meeting:
- Engage in small talk in the first moments before everyone arrives (whether physically or electronically) – to establish rapport.
- Make sure to start by introducing everyone if they don’t all know each other.
- Be completely and respectfully present at the meeting, no matter the degree of your participation in the discussion. No cell phone, no computer, no whispering with your neighbor…
Following the meeting:
- If you’re in charge, be sure to email a summary and action items for follow up to all the participants and any other relevant parties.
- Strategy before action:
In Israel – there’s a good idea, and then comes its implementation.
In most other cultures – there’s a good idea, then lots and lots of time and investment in various processes, and only then comes its implementation.
That’s why, if you think you have a better idea and a change should be made, you’re going to have to give reasons and details, perhaps including a market survey, budgetary estimate and so forth, or your proposal will be deemed unprofessional.
- Disagree and commit:
When a manager presents a plan/strategy/roadmap, you should understand that it has already undergone much planning and investment. This isn’t the time to start arguing or tossing out alternative ideas. The idea stage is long over. This is already the implementation stage, during which the whole team joins forces to reach the goal.
“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” is one of Amazon’s leadership principles, meaning that “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree…. [however] Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly” (https://www.amazon.jobs/en/principles).
- Be humble:
Don’t assume you know everything. Working with people from different cultures is a great opportunity to exit your comfort zone and learn new things. It’s a challenging process that ultimately creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Amazon has something to teach us here as well, with its principle that “Leaders are right, a lot. They have strong judgment and good instincts. They seek diverse perspectives and work to disconfirm their beliefs” (ibid). But leaders are not always right! So we would be well advised to leave room for the learning that comes from listening, empathy and a great deal of humbleness along the way.
- Outside perspectives:
Become aware of how you and your fellow Israelis are perceived by other cultures. This kind of insight is the first step in building cultural intelligence.
Based on my research, the Israeli culture is perceived as having seven main characteristics, which I arrange into the following acronym spelling out Israeli:
(Please feel free to read more about all these subjects in detail in my Amazon bestselling book, Israeli Business Culture.)
Oh, and be careful with “humor”! It’s one of the hardest things to translate and localize. Better to skip jokes and not risk offending someone from a different culture.
Good luck 🙂