Workplace communication and cultural diversity

Cultural diversity is commonplace in businesses today, especially in the UAE, but it is important to ensure that your managers and employees are effectively communicating when cultural differences exist.

Poor communication practices create personal conflicts, missed deadlines, incorrect goal assumptions and contribute to employee turnover. Really effective communication establishes trust and rapport, helps you to act on risks and opportunities, and promotes productivity and alignment.

Language barriers are important to address because messages can easily be misconstrued. A worker may pretend to understand a directive when they really don’t if they are embarrassed or frustrated with the language problem.

There are many cultural differences that affect communication and different ways of viewing them. One way is to consider context. High-context cultures are those that rely less on verbal communication and more on nonverbal communication, actions and settings to find meaning. Japan, India and the Middle East are examples of high-context cultures. Low-context cultures place a great deal of emphasis on verbal communication and don’t pay as much attention to other contextual clues. Examples of low-context cultures are the US, the UK and Germany.

One thing to keep in mind when managing cross-cultural communications is to avoid stereotyping. Even though a culture may be defined in a particular way, that doesn’t mean such things are true of each individual and regional differences are also key. An Asian employee from Malaysia, for instance, has a very different background than someone from Japan.

Other cultural issues that affect communication in the workplace are roles and status, personal space and body language. The roles and status of men and women, for instance, can affect how a male employee relates to a female supervisor or how comfortable a female worker feels when addressed by a male manager.

In terms of personal space, an American worker is used to five feet of distance when conversing with another. German and Japanese workers may need more distance while Arabs and Latinos normally stand much closer together when talking. Body language cues differ among cultures. Eye contact is a very important distinction among cultures. Westerners often insist on eye contact as a measure of attention and honesty while it is considered disrespectful in some Asian and Latin cultures.

It’s important for you to tailor your management according to such cultural differences by ensuring that communication is clearly received and understood. One way is to use reflective listening, that is, have employees explain to you what it is that they understand goals and objectives to be.

Other tools for improving cross-cultural communication:

  • Learn how different cultures best receive information. Some cultures don’t trust information that comes from a manager and would rather take direction from a shop foreman or team leader. And employees differ in whether or not they appreciate praise for their efforts in front of a group or in private.
  • Prepare all of your employees with cultural awareness and diversity programs. Teach empathy and mutual respect. Also provide ongoing acculturation training to new employees so that they can truly understand your company’s overall culture: your goals and the behavior you expect.
  • Assign mentors to employees so that integration is facilitated and employees have someone that understands them to turn to.
  • Avoid using slang, common jargon or metaphors when you address employees of different cultures. These can make no sense at all to someone from a different culture.
  • Use graphics whenever possible in explaining goals and processes to employees of different cultures.
  • Ask for feedback but be prepared to use an intermediary if necessary.

[ Article by Oksana Tashakova ]

Oksana Tashakova is a human resource development and training specialist and founder of Academia of Human Potential , new generation HR training solutions,

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