Overcoming cultural barriers​ to communication

In this series, we discuss The Seven Barriers of Communication. This post is dedicated to cultural barriers. Stay tuned as we discuss each.

One of the biggest challenges of living in a globally connected world is communicating effectively with people of different cultural backgrounds. Our world is made up of a diverse landscape of values and norms, and sometimes they conflict. Cultural differences, whether they stem from greater societal factors or individual experiences, can create communication barriers that hurt team productivity and collaboration. It’s important to be able to identify these problems early and find solutions that ensure everyone can communicate efficiently and feel comfortable doing so.

Examples of Cultural Barriers to Communication

Sometimes cultural barriers are easy to predict, but often they don’t become apparent until you’re actively working together.

Factors that could affect cultural views in the workplace include:

Generation – The internet is packed with articles deconstructing the cultural differences between Millenials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. While many of the differences between us are overblown, our varying life experiences and stages in life can strongly influence how we act and think when it comes to working.

Work Experience – When someone moves from a larger corporation to a startup or vice versa, they often face some form of a culture shock when they get there. Someone used to an environment where there is an emphasis on seniority and status may find it challenging to adapt to a flatter organizational structure. Someone who is used to self-organizing may find it challenging to adjust to top-down approaches.

Education – Some of us pursue formal training (i.e., college degrees, certification programs, etc.) before entering our careers, and others learn their roles on the job. How people acquire knowledge and skills can shape how they approach projects and the people around them.

Personal Background – Where people grow up or currently live can influence their work values. For example, New Yorkers are known for their fast pace and long hours. Someone new to New York City may struggle to keep up with that pace, and a New Yorker moving to a smaller city might rub some people the wrong way with their constant sense of urgency.

Ethnicity – Ethnicity or national origin creates a lot of differences in regards to how people perceive certain expressions, behaviors, gestures, and habits. In Japan, generally speaking, people tend to be more formal than in the United States. They stand farther apart from each other when speaking and often address one another using last names with honorifics. An example of how we see this formality effect business is with customer service. In American restaurants, people expect waiters to ask how their food is, and friendly chit chat is encouraged. In Japan, quality customer service is characterized as unobtrusive.

How to Approach Differences

Cultural differences should in no way prevent you from hiring or collaborating with different kinds of people. On the contrary, diversity has been shown to boost your bottom line! But in embracing cultural diversity, you’ll need to know how to bridge differences and unite your team.

Start by getting to know what those cultural differences are on your team. Some may be immediately apparent, while others will require you to seek feedback. Ask your team how they like to work and how they like to be managed. Remember, a sign of a great manager is not one’s ability to apply a single management style equally across a team; it’s one’s ability to adapt to be the best kind of manager for each team member as an individual. As you demonstrate a willingness to learn about and accommodate cultural differences, most of your employees will respond positively.

Once you’ve identified areas of cultural differences, you can approach them as such:

1. Determine how these differences are relevant to the job. If someone asks for an accommodation that doesn’t negatively affect the results of their work, you should freely grant it. However, if cultural differences are impacting a person’s ability to complete their job, steps will need to be taken to help them adapt their workflow.

2. Identify whether or not you can reasonably accommodate the cultural difference. Sometimes there is a simple solution, like changing how you praise someone for a job well done or providing additional positive feedback. Other times, the accommodations a person requires may be incompatible with the job itself.

3. Follow through with reasonable accommodations, and lay out a plan of action for those that can’t be made. Once you’ve decided to make an exception or change your behavior towards an individual, make sure you’re following up to ensure that they’re getting the continued support they need to succeed. If there was no reasonable accommodation available, determine what steps need to be taken to ensure this person receives the training and support they need to adapt their working style.

4. Educate yourself about common cultural differences. Is your team made up of all different age groups? Look up management techniques relevant to each age group and see how you can combine styles to suit different people. Is your team sprawled out across the globe? Research basic cultural norms for the region, like how they address one another and what common signs of respect are. You can learn a lot from a quick Google search, and your entire team and company will be better off for your efforts.

Final Thoughts

Every preference of every individual can’t be accommodated under one company. But meeting cultural differences with respect and action will allow every team member to perform at their best. Learning to work with people from different backgrounds and life experiences is essential for all of us, inside the workplace, and out.