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Intercultural Communication in the Workplace

According to the Centre for Creative Leadership, we should think of culture “like the air we breathe. It is all around us, yet it is often invisible.” However, in an increasingly globalized world where different cultures frequently co-exist, culture becomes highly salient. Deep-rooted customs and traditions come to the fore, and we find ourselves struggling to communicate effectively. This is particularly problematic in the workplace where the quality of our interactions with employees, management and clients influences our wellbeing. In what ways do cultures differ? Why is an awareness of intercultural competence so important? And how can we navigate intercultural conflict?

How do cultures differ?

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede was a pioneer in understanding the ways in which cultures differ. He argues that there are six dimensions: (1) Individualism/collectivism; (2) Masculinity/femininity; (3) Power distance; (4) Long-term/short-term orientation; (5) Uncertainty avoidance; and (6) Indulgence. By way of example, according to Hofstede’s country comparison tool, the UK is a low power distance culture. This means that society does not accept that power is unequally distributed, and so inequalities between employees and management are minimized. British culture is also highly individualistic, and so the rights, autonomy and unique contribution of the individual take priority over those of the group. In addition, we score highly on the masculinity dimension by valuing achievement, material success and competition. However, with burnout on the rise, we seem to be shifting towards a feminine culture that prioritises quality of life, as well as cooperation. The culture’s uncertainty avoidance is low, indicating that we can tolerate ambiguity and unpredictability in the workplace as seen in our short planning horizons and high level of creativity. There is no apparent preference for orientation, but we are, according to Hofstede and colleagues, an indulgent society who enjoy life and place importance on leisure time – potentially to counteract the pressure of the masculine values. Other researchers have identified additional dimensions. These include how much we express our emotions, whether we perceive time as a guideline or a limited resource, the extent to which we have control over destiny, and boundaries between work and personal lives.

Why is intercultural competence important?

So how do these differences cause problems? Patrick Schmidt, a consultant for the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research, provides two compelling case studies that highlight the need for intercultural awareness. American company Chrysler and German company Daimler held their first joint board meeting where both countries presented their vision. The Americans opted for a simple, enthusiastic, humorous 35-minute pitch, which the Germans felt was “optimism gone overboard.” The Germans, on the other hand, chose a detailed and serious 2-hour presentation with background information and various models. This was labeled “a train-wreck” by the Americans. What went wrong? America’s flexible, easy-going approach was a consequence of their low uncertainty avoidance culture, which clashed with Germany’s high uncertainty avoidance culture as manifested in their more rigid, forward-planning style. Another superb example is from a White Paper by the Centre for Creative Leadership. They observed that on a trip to Ethiopia, employees did not feel comfortable asking questions, sharing ideas or mixing with those of a different status. This is due to their high power distance values, which contrasts with America where, similar to Britain, people believe in equality and do not struggle with asserting themselves. These great examples show how a lack of intercultural awareness can have severe repercussions for employment wellbeing due to confusion over norms relating to organisational structure, communication, decision-making, ambiguity, creativity, and independence.

How can we navigate cultural differences?

The first step is to realise that cultures do not just belong to “exotic” countries. In fact, intercultural competence is less about learning the other culture as acquiring a better background of your culture: “Knowing your mental software is a prerequisite to understanding other peoples’ ways and habits” (Schmidt 2005). Nonetheless, according to two prominent professors at business and management school IMD, there are 5 categories of conversations that team leaders can have (no specialist training required) to improve communication with employees of other cultures:

(1) Look: spot the difference, e.g. What makes a good or bad first impression? How do you perceive status differences?

(2) Act: misjudging behaviour, e.g. How important are punctuality and time limits? What is a comfortable physical distance for interacting in the workplace?

(3) Speak: dividing by language, e.g. Is a promise an aspiration or a guarantee? Does silence mean reflection or disengagement?

(4) Think: occupying different mindsets, e.g. What’s more important, the big picture or the details? Is it better to be reliable or flexible?

(5) Feel: charting emotionals, e.g. How do people express anger or enthusiasm? How would you react if you were annoyed at a team mate?

Start by explaining to the team the purpose of these discussions, and encourage people to phrase questions and answers as “In your world..?” and “In my world.” More broadly, according to one study, management should seek to foster a climate where diversity is a positive and fundamental characteristic of the organisation. Taken together, intercultural ignorance can be a great hindrance to workplace relations, but intercultural awareness can be of monumental benefit.