The Tale of the Wagging Dogs

October 13th, 2009

One of my most compelling stories about cross-cultural communication revolves around dogs.

Back in my agency days, I created a quarterly “global rally” to bring together our worldwide team, which grew to 350 people in 50+ offices in 18 months, via our client’s Internet meeting software and conference call. The goals were to heighten awareness of being on a global team, share best practices, showcase successful campaigns and emphasize the team’s importance to the agency by having top company leaders speak. The underlying business goal was to help the team deliver to the client the economies of scale and global consistency for which they were paying dearly.

Source: basykes @ Flickr

Source: basykes @ Flickr

Having gotten complaints from the client that our global teams were not skillful or diligent in using their Internet meeting software, we planned in the upcoming rally to showcase the many useful features of the application. One such feature was a polling capability – the meeting host poses a multiple choice question and each attendee can respond, after which results are immediately displayed. I was out of town for that rally and the week leading up to it, having already planned my second trip to Mississippi for post-Katrina clean-up (another story for another time).

When I got back from my trip, I went through results of the online participant evaluations. Many of them were negative, even angry. I couldn’t imagine why. As I read on, I discovered many mentions of dogs, not knowing names of dogs, ridiculous question about dogs. I quickly accessed a copy of the final presentation and discovered to my horror that one of the polling questions, written while I was away, went something like this:

If you were a dog, what kind of dog would you want to be?

a. Poodle

b. Pit Bull

c. German Shepherd

d. Beagle

OK, so what was the big deal?

Well, the people who wrote the question, who were not communications professionals, did not stop to consider: who do you think you’re talking to? A global team. People in 30+ countries. Most of whose first language is not English. Now, I lived in Israel for seven years and speak fairly good Hebrew, but I can recall the Hebrew word for maybe one or two breeds of dog. I studied Spanish for six+ years and spent a semester in Madrid living with a Spanish family. If they had had a dog, I would have learned the name of that breed, but that’s it.

Holy cow, were people pissed off. Being asked to answer a question they couldn’t even understand was frustrating and alienating. Team leads around the globe were helpless, left scrambling to translate, compounding the anxiety.

This single question exacerbated innumerable issues with and eroded immeasurable good will toward our headquarters in Seattle, the leaders of which had unwittingly sent the worst possible message to global teams: we have no idea who you are or what you’re capable of, and you are not important.

One slide about dogs did all that.

The lesson here is the same basic lesson of communication we see over and over again: you MUST know who you’re talking to. And knowing global teams requires special sensitivity and sensibilities, without which well-meaning professionals can wreak havoc.

    • jan said:
    • Maybe they just didn’t want to think of themself as a dog?
      And…smarty pants…there were pictures as I recall. And if there weren’t – shame on the software that did not allow images to be part of the survey. 🙂


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Learning Program and Team Awards 2009-2014


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