Whenever I start a new job, I feel a mix of excitement and trepidation. What will my colleagues be like? Will they like me?
In my Berlin team, each engineer came from a different country and spoke a different native language. I wondered how I would communicate at all!
In case I gave you the wrong impression, we were not pointing and grunting like cavemen in the weekly sprint meeting. Everybody was fluent in English.
Nevertheless, I wondered how our different cultural backgrounds would influence communication. In my beginner German class, the native English speakers made the most mistakes (myself included). We sounded odd because we were trying to speak German with our English mindset.
So, how did it go in Berlin? It was one of the most cohesive teams ever. We communicated more effectively than teams of native English speakers!
We made it work by changing one fundamental assumption. We assumed less-than-perfect communication.
Less-than-perfect doesn't mean assuming people are stupid. We only changed the usual assumption that everything was perfectly understood.
Assuming less-than-perfect communication had a powerful impact on the team's behaviour. We acknowledged the language and cultural differences, and we were challenged to find a solution.
We spent a great deal more time asking clarifying questions. We repeated what we had heard, to demonstrate understanding. We became less easily offended, because perhaps that's how they speak in Australia.
Of course, merely assuming less-than-perfect communication is not a silver bullet. Everyone on the team was committed to creating a great communication culture. It requires patience and effort, but it was worth it.
I laugh when I think about those initial communication worries. Why did I only start to think about communicating effectively in Berlin? Communication problems happen everywhere, even between native speakers. Two native English speakers in a relationship never fight, right?
Now that I'm back in Sydney, most of my future colleagues will be native English speakers. They will speak with the same accent I have. They will behave in a very Australian way, like I do. But no matter how similar we seem, I will be assuming less-than-perfect communication.