To be copied or not copied?

Valerie Berset-Price

Valérie Berset-Price, owner of international business consulting firm Professional Passport, is the expert behind the Vancouver Business Journal’s advice column: Going Global: Business insight on an international scale.

Dear Valérie,

I am the manager of a R&D distributed team for a multinational. Our team members are located in India and China, and while they do great work, we experience some repeated communication breakdowns that I suspect might be rooted in the cultural differences between us that cause misunderstandings. For example, I see myself being dragged into a lot of email exchanges that go unanswered until I get copied on the message. This technique is inefficient and unprofessional in our eyes, but we do not know how to stop it, as having me involved seems to be the only way to get what we need from our Asian counterparts. Is there a technique you recommend to get rid of this constant escalation?

Dear R&D manager,

The first thing there is to know is that involving the manager is expected in what we call ‘reactive’ cultures where a strong hierarchy prevails. Involving the manager is a sign of respect: the manager should always be kept in the loop as a way to ensure that the request is at the right hierarchic level for the subordinate to answer it (or not, which will be decided by the copied manager). Your struggle is thus indeed rooted in cultural differences and especially in the perception of why/when a manager should get involved.

In the linear world, such as the United States, employees are expected to act on their own, and they have a lot of leeway. As a result, one gets the manager involved only when all other issues have failed and a real problem must be resolved – or approval must be obtained to unlock a situation/budget.

There is thus a perception in the West, and mainly in linear cultures, that a manager’s time is precious and should not be wasted on trivial situations. In the ‘reactive’ world, it is the exact opposite: failure is not acceptable, and it is preferable to do nothing than to take the wrong initiative. As a result, having the boss copied on an email is reassuring, and the support people have been taught to rely on that.

Understanding that this practice would cluster your inbox and might drive you to insanity, I suggest that you develop a code within your linear group that in the subject line of the email identifies that correspondence as unnecessary or necessary for you to read. Some of our clients have adopted the (UTR) vs. (TR) codes, and it seems to be working very well for them. I suggest that your group gives this a try to see if it resolves your dilemma.

Valérie Berset-Price

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