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As we move forward in the 21st century, diversity is becoming increasingly commonplace. A culturally diverse workforce can be a great boon to an organisation. It provides a broad array of perspectives, fresh ideas, and insightful approaches to problem-solving.
However, without effective cross-cultural communication, you can’t properly reap the benefits of a diverse workforce.
Effective cross-cultural communication is a key driver of workplace success, employee satisfaction, and retention. Before we get into how to achieve it, let’s look at why it’s so important.
We all know how important effective communication is for the success of any collaborative venture.
Successful communication reduces misinterpretation and ensures that everyone is on the same page regarding strategies and goals.
Cross-cultural communication must be honed within a diverse or global workforce so that all team members are clear on the project as a whole and their role in it.
In addition, communication breeds a sense of connectedness. This makes team members more invested in working collaboratively.
Better communication also enhances trust between managers and employees. When leaders demonstrate an understanding of cultural differences and communication styles, employees feel that leaders are on their side and consider their perspectives to be important.
They feel that they can trust those in higher positions and that the leadership trust their abilities and value what they have to offer. It’s crucial that employees feel valued — and that includes their unique cultural perspectives and norms.
Incentives are a handy way to boost employee productivity, but they only work if employees find the incentives genuinely motivating.
Improving cross-cultural communication makes it easier to implement appropriate incentives that employees truly want.
If incentive programs get tailored to the specific cultural norms of your employees, this will also make them feel recognised and valued.
A diverse workplace means a broader range of worldviews and approaches, which is excellent for creativity and innovation. Effective cross-cultural communication means team members of different cultures can bounce off and learn from one another. In this way, they can achieve greater innovation together than they could have done working separately — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
However, without effective cross-cultural communication, diversity may lead to blockages of understanding. This will impede a team’s ability to work collaboratively.
When we think about difficulties with cross-cultural communication, we may first think about language barriers and dialectal variations that lead to misunderstandings.
But there’s more to it than that.
Different cultures value different styles of communication with peers and superiors. For example, while continuous eye contact is an important element of communication in the U.S., it’s considered rude or aggressive in many cultures.
These are the kinds of things that can make cross-cultural communication seem like a minefield of offense and misunderstanding. In truth, much of this boils down to a few key differences.
Anthropologist Edward T. Hall introduced the notion of high-context and low-context cultures and communication styles way back in 1959.
Essentially, low-context cultures value explicit communication that does not rely on the context to aid in understanding. In contrast, high-context cultures consider the verbal element only part of the message, and thus, much is implicitly conveyed through elements such as intonation and facial expression.
Communication between members of high-context cultures (such as Japan or Saudi Arabia) and low-context cultures (such as the USA or Germany) can be complex without an awareness of these differences. In an era where remote work affects all facets of people’s lives, these high and low-context barriers are even trickier to navigate.
Those with a low-context communication style are likely to miss many of the subtle implications of a high-context communication style.
On the flip side, those with a high-context culture may look for hints that are not there or may find a direct communication style to be lacking in decorum.
The best way to get around these differences is simply being aware of them as much as possible. It is also important to acknowledge that one communication style is not “better” than the other. They are simply different.
Here are some strategies you can implement immediately to improve cross-cultural communication in your organisation.
The first and most crucial step towards effective cross-cultural communication is accepting that there are cultural differences and that the other party’s communication style is not “worse” than your own. To communicate successfully, both parties need to be willing to go a little further to make themselves understood, and listen in a non-judgmental way.
Slip-ups may occur, but if both parties are operating in good faith and with an open mind, they can be easily resolved.
It’s natural for people to be surprised and affronted when someone else’s manner of interaction is entirely different from their own.
It may be necessary to devise explicit directives and corporate training sessions to cultivate openness and flexibility among employees of different cultures.
If you’re working with customers or new employees from different cultures, doing some research on their culture and customs can go a long way. It’s not so much about knowing everything about their culture, but more about showing that you’re willing to make an effort to be respectful.
Don’t assume that everyone you’re working with shares your communication style or workplace norms. You need to make it clear what you need from your team members to accomplish the task.
This may involve saying that you need people to communicate with you explicitly, as you cannot pick up contextual clues.
It’s important not to frame this in a way that devalues communication styles different from your own, but rather that you’re not skilled in them.
Even if you implement everything we mentioned above, there may still be hiccups in achieving mutual understanding across cultures.
That’s why it’s essential to make all members of your team feel valued.
You can do this by giving positive feedback that makes your employees feel like you value what they bring to the table.
Embracing a multicultural workplace is a learning curve, but as long as you work towards cultivating a sense of openness and acceptance, and frame difference as a learning opportunity rather than a problem to overcome, diversity will be good for the success of your organisation.
Kelly Lowe is a passionate writer and editor with a penchant for topics covering business and entrepreneurship. When she’s not tapping away at her keyboard writing articles, she spends her free time either trying out different no-bake recipes or immersing herself in a good book.
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