How to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings before they arise
With businesses becoming increasingly internationalized, and in-house and extended teams increasingly multi-cultural, today’s managers are faced with a challenge that did not fall on their predecessors: how to communicate effectively across cultures.
In order for businesses to remain effective and competitive, leaders need to engage their employees rather than inform and instruct. There are challenges in doing this: communication contexts differ across cultures. Managers who get it wrong are left to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings. Often this can be damaging to the organization’s internal and external reputation.
In the worst cases, the inability to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings can decimate promising businesses and mergers. Think Daimler and Chrysler (a merger that was called a ‘merger of equals’ when it was conceived, a fiasco a few years later) or AOL and Time Warner (with the AOL-Time Warner share price down from $72 in 2000 to $15 in 2008) and you’ll realize the damage that cross-cultural differences can cause if left unresolved.
In this post I’ll set out a 3-step strategy to avoid the need to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings by preparing for them first.
1. Understand the communication style of different cultures
People from different cultures communicate differently.
Some, like the United States, Australia, and the UK, are more direct. Communication is precise and open, and more emotional. This is called ‘low-context’ culture.
Others, especially Chinese, Japanese, and Indian, are subtler. Meanings are often not explicitly stated, but instead implied within information provided. This is called ‘high-context’ culture.
Some cultures communicate calmly, basing discussion wholly on facts and acting decisively (linear-active). Others are courteous, good listeners, and amiable (reactive). A third type of culture is warm and emotional (multi-active).
By understanding these differences, you will be able to temper your communication style accordingly and be more effective in cross-cultural teams.
2. Understand that there will be differences in cultural value
Every culture has different values. These may develop over time. For example, the class-based society that was prevalent in the United Kingdom for many hundreds of years has largely been expunged. In India, the caste system is still very much alive despite being outlawed.
Geert Hofstede identifies five dimensions of cultural perspectives:
- Power Distance
- Individualism vs. Collectivism
- Masculinity vs. Femininity
- Uncertainty Avoidance
- Long-term vs. Short-term Orientation
As an example of the above, power distance is the dimension that describes India’s caste culture: the acceptance of inequality between different people.
Individualism vs. collectivism refers to the emphasis on individual or collective success.
Masculinity vs. femininity refers to the extent to which the culture emphasizes masculine, work-related goals rather than humanist goals.
Uncertainty avoidance refers to the need for rules and direction rather than ambiguity.
Long-term orientation vs. short-term orientation refers to the level of goal-setting in a timeframe context.
By understanding how different cultures ‘operate’ within these five dimensions, you will be able to bridge the gap that exists between your cultural dimension and that of your employees or customers.
3. Develop effective communication style
When you understand these cultural differences, you can develop your communication style to avoid the need to resolve cross-cultural misunderstandings. This ability interlinks seamlessly with high-level emotional intelligence. You’ll become more tolerant of ambiguity, be more flexible toward different cultures, and less certain that your culture is right in all circumstances and situations.
By developing communication skills such as openness and agreeability will help to build respect for you as a leader and engender effective communication. Request and expect feedback to help develop your cross-cultural communication capabilities. By appreciating cultural differences you’ll avoid cross-cultural misunderstandings, which can derail promising relationships.
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