How to solve internal communication challenges in a global setting
In sociology, the term ethnocentrism is a cultural notion that we tend to view our own culture as superior to others. Communication in a cross-cultural and global setting does not come without challenges, but which challenges are important to address and how do we in fact manage to communicate on a shaky foundation of cultural diversity?
Cultural diversity brings in so many underlying aspects that can challenge and disturb the interpretation of our communication: How do we perceive a specific type of behavior? What is our socioeconomic background? Do we have an individualistic or collectivistic approach to work? How do we deal with gender relations, authority, or uncertainty?
The list goes on.
For one thing, a lack of cultural understanding can seriously harm cooperation in organizations. Let’s take the global organization’s favorite internal communication channel, the email, as an example:
You are responsible for a project, which requires a great deal of communication with a foreign business unit. Your coworker from a different culture has a "less direct" approach to delivering information via e-mail, which makes every correspondence a life-draining nightmare. Your otherwise efficient work is slowed down, as you need to allocate a lot of resources just to get the information you need. This delays all your other assignments, which can make you frustrated and ultimately unmotivated for the cooperation with the foreign unit. Worst-case scenario, for your employer, is that you go and seek your opportunities elsewhere.
So how do organizations deal with cultural diversity to avoid these internal challenges that cause inefficient processes, misunderstandings, and bad cooperation?
Switching off the cultural autopilot
The most common solution I have experienced is training “cultural awareness” through digital training modules. Often a selection of interactive presentations, videos, questionnaires, etc. is to strengthen our ability to do business with different cultures. So when the quiz, which was of course a few weeks overdue, has been passed, then everything’s ok?
I beg to differ. When working in a global organization, having no cultural understanding is bad, but having only a simple understanding of cultures is equally bad, I would argue, as it creates stereotypes. Therefore we need to switch off the cultural autopilot and aim for a more complex set of cultural competencies. Let me put it in a different way: Have you ever traveled by plane, and heard “how to use a safety vest”? At least a million times, right? But at this very moment, would you be able to tell me with 100% certainty, how you actually put on and use the vest? Perhaps not? The same is applicable when it comes to cultural understanding, which is why we need to focus on integrating cultural competencies into our work.
Organizational artifacts are a place to start. These are the things that are immediately observable, such as our dress code, furniture, tools, etc. Edgar Schein refers to these artifacts as “the tip of the iceberg”, but it wasn’t the top of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic; it was the viciously giant body of ice underneath it that did the job.
This body consists of the ways we think, the underlying assumptions, and a sense of “taken for grantedness”, which can really harm collaborations, as it is so deeply embedded in our organizations – both globally and locally. Therefore, it can be recommended to look inwards. The premise of cultural understanding should be to know our own culture, how we are in fact perceived, and become aware of just how our own cultural attributes affect the cultures that we work with.
From here on, I can recommend the following actions to minimize the cultural gap between employees and improve internal communication:
A place to start is to launch a number of workshops with reflexive exercises that set new standards as to how you communicate in a cross-cultural environment. Cultural awareness programs should focus on your own national culture before addressing the cultures of foreign colleagues.
Create or update the international communication policy
It is vital to integrate the new cultural understanding by formulating an internal communication policy or improving the one you have. The policy should reflect healthy internal communication, where clear responsibilities are defined and lines of direction are given in terms of how we share information and communicate internally. Normally, local leaders are responsible for “translating” the global strategy onto the local market conditions, but they should also act as anchormen for the internal communication strategy formulated in the policy.
Find the common denominators
When dealing with teamwork in different cultures, a great idea is to express oneself in well-known metaphors and common images, because they can easily be translated. I for one particularly love the football metaphor: How we work together as a team that needs players in defense, midfield, and attack to win the game. It’s easy to understand and relate to.
Consider the non-verbal communication
Technology creates new possibilities in cross-cultural organizations, so make sure to take advantage of them. A simple recommendation is to implement webcams in conference calls or larger meetings. It is a great idea, as it allows us to see the non-verbal communication that people express (more about that here), and it strengthens our social relations.
To improve cooperation in culturally diverse organizations, we should strive for a global mindset, grasping cultural awareness and try to discover our own cultural attributes, as it makes it easier to maneuver in a global setting – making us stronger communicators. Furthermore, developing common guidelines for internal communication will help to improve cross-cultural processes and teamwork in organizations.
“To become a true global citizen, one must abandon all notions of otherness and instead embrace togetherness” – Suzy Kassem