Communicating Across Differences in an Organization

Aug 26, 2019 | Culture, Leadership

In today’s business world, people from all walks of life are coming together to make an impact. Teams are required to work together and achieve productivity, regardless of differences in age, race, class, and culture. Creating an inclusive work environment and forging meaningful relationships across personal differences are becoming essential components of organizational success. Proactively overcoming difference through mindful communications creates more productive teams and builds long-term, foundational interpersonal skills. In an increasingly globalized business landscape, it is imperative to understand the sources of potential difference and have adaptable strategies to overcome them.

These cultural differences extend beyond nationality and can stem from any point of difference between two people. Even small divergence in age or educational background can cause individuals to develop different perspectives on work or communicate differently. Big or small, these points of cultural divergence have an equal capacity to impact interpersonal relationships and an entire organization’s future. Subtle nuances that alienate a seasoned VP from their freshly graduated staff can jeopardize an organization’s culture just as poor first impressions between global political leaders can alter diplomatic relations.

Cultural differences are usually grouped under four distinct variables: time and space, fate and personal responsibility, face vs. face-saving, and non-verbal communication.

Time and Space

People around the world have different perceptions of time, which cause them to value time and productivity very differently. Most of the Western world perceives time monochronicly, measuring it quantitatively and sequentially. Efficiency and punctuality are sacred; the oft-heard mantra “time is money” effectively captures this attitude. 

Eastern nations, broadly speaking, adopt a polychromous approach to time, where it has unlimited continuity. Time is valued on an event-relationship basis; people do not feel as bound to a linear schedule and often manage multiple projects or interactions at once.

These opposing views of time can lead to conflict around deadlines and time management, as either approach may be seen as poor practice. A team that prioritizes monochromic work may think a polychromous worker is being unproductive if they are juggling multiple projects as opposed to completing tasks sequentially.

Fate and Personal Responsibility

The degree of control that individuals have over their own life varies across the world. Those who believe in complete free will expect high levels of accountability that more fatalistic individuals don’t believe are necessary. This could create negative opinions within both parties: the first may believe their peers to be lazy, while the second may feel their counterparts are coercive and unrealistic. 

Face vs. Face Saving

The concept of saving face impacts the level of confrontation that someone is comfortable with. More direct cultures expect honest and frequent communication, regardless of the subject matter. However, self-representation is of great importance in some cultures, where people may forgo direct confrontation because it reflects poorly on them. Being oblivious to people’s comfort with confrontation can make team-wide conflict resolution an unproductive and painful process.

Non-Verbal Communication

A majority of communication within an interaction comes from non-verbal cues: body language, eye contact, distance, and touch. Most of the non-verbal cues we use in everyday conversation are subconscious habits, but they have a great capacity to determine an interaction’s success. Failing to recognize different conventions around non-verbal communication can cause unintended offense and stifle effective discourse.

So, what can you do to improve cross-cultural communication?

Foreseeing all possible instances of cultural disconnect is a daunting and, frankly, impossible task. Being mindful of these potential differences, and being proactive about addressing them in your daily communications, will help to avoid the most devastating pitfalls. Consideration and effort go a long way; navigating the vast cultural diversity of our world does not require perfection! Here are some important points to keep in mind:

Do Your Research

When meeting new people or onboarding new employees, do some research on the people with whom you will be interacting. With the power of the Internet, a wealth of resources dedicated to cross-cultural communication is just a click away! Knowing a few easy ways to maximize communicative success and avoid offense demonstrates a level of consideration that may be the difference between forging a long-term relationship and a dead-end.

Surround Yourself with Diversity

Working alongside people with whom you have cultural differences is a practical strategy to improve your cross-cultural communication skills without sacrificing extra time.  As a business leader, you can empower your employees by offering them the opportunity to educate you, while creating a more dynamic and adaptable workplace environment.

Don’t Expect Perfection

No one will ever be perfectly versed in effective communication across all forms of differences. It’s important to be able to recognize mistakes, apologize if necessary, and move on knowing what you can do better the next time!

By: Avery Pasternak


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