Effective Workplace Communication: More than Language

*Germany-USA Career Center guest blogger ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D. on the perils of communicating “the old way” in a new environment.
*

I am a displaced New Yorker living in California, often getting in trouble for being too direct and to the point. The cultural climate in which I was raised, the hustle-bustle business world of Manhattan, was managed by hard-driving, hard-working men (yes, they were all men in those days) who literally pulled themselves up by their boot straps. They said what they believed in the moment – and sometimes not too kindly.

I can remember a boss screaming at me, calling me a stupid idiot and other not-so-nice-words because of an accident I had. Yet, the next day he was all loving, supportive kindness. You knew where you stood with those bosses.

While still a kid in NYC, I worked for a company that had a manufacturing facility in the deep South. Every quarter or so, one of the senior vice presidents from our southern facility would come into New York and us “girls” would take turns being his secretary during his stay. We had an internal joke about him. We’d say:

In New York, when you want to stop payment on a check, you write a one line letter to the bank, saying, “Dear Banker, please stop payment on check #101, $100.00. Thank you.
In the South, when you want to stop payment on the same check, you write a two or three page letter to the banker, asking about his family, the weather, the latest sports events, and eventually you get to ask him to stop payment on the check.

Low-context vs. high-context cultures

When I work with executives from other countries, I am reminded of these stories, because there are so many cultural differences about how people interact with others. One general concept is the notion of low-context v. high-context countries.

In a low-context country, such as New York, most of the USA, Israel, some of the Middle Eastern countries, Germany and a few other European countries, the object is to do business as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In a high-context country, like most of Asia, the South in the USA, and the Romanic cultures, it is far more important to establish the relationship first, before moving on to finalizing the business. Relationship building happens in many ways, and varies from culture to culture. But in general, it is the honey that makes for doing business possible.

There’s also a second, not less important component to feeling comfortable in working together across cultural boundaries: How do people hear, and respond to, complaints or criticism? This, too, depends on cultural, age and gender elements.

For example, here in California, many managers tip-toe around employees, rather than addressing issues right-on. How does someone who has risen through the ranks in a work culture accustomed to more direct, in-your-face critique correct an employee who is used to a far less confrontational style?

Make yourself understood – the right way

How does, say, the new project manager from Germany suggest another way of doing something to a team member, while at the same time allowing that staff member to “save face”, as is of particular importance for so many people raised in Asian cultures?

Make no mistake about it: If you come from a culture and management style that prides itself on bullying others in public – chewing them out, telling them in no uncertain terms that they did it wrong, even earning bragging rights with your peers that way (in German: “Da habe ich den Meier aber mal richtig lang gemacht…”) – you really can get into trouble in most U.S. workplaces.

This kind of behavior will be perceived as unnecessary cruel and hostile. Instead of getting the intended reaction to the verbal whiplashing, at best some nasty passive-aggressive responses will be the result. At worst, the offending project manager is in for some serious face time with HR or his or her immediate superior.

The cutting remarks may have been intended as a “2” or “3” on a scale of 1-10. But by employees or co-workers not accustomed to this direct and confrontational style, it can be perceived as a “30” or “40” on that scale of 1-10.

In short: it’s self-defeating. As a leader/manager, you would be harming your own credibility and the needs – bottom line – of your company.

Efficiency is nice, but real leadership is about effectiveness

When trying to bridge cultures and communication expectations, we also need to look at the difference in cognitive styles. Granted, a busy executive wants to get the job done – and get it done right. He or she doesn’t really want to bother with all the niceties necessary to salve the ego of fragile employees. Yet – yet – if you really want to get it done, you need to find a style that will work.

Peter Drucker said that it is far more important to be “effective” than “efficient”. Effectiveness, in this context, would suggest that leaders and managers learn new styles of communication that work better in the countries/cultures in which they are working.

Effectiveness can be achieved by understanding the cognitive styles, cultural styles, ego-needs, and relationship needs of the people with whom you communicate. Especially in places as highly diverse as New York City or the Silicon Valley, a foreign accent, for example, should be the least of your worries (think “Aaanold”).

Much more important is taking the time to learn the culture – at least as well as the language! – and you will be building a much more effective organization or team.


About the author:

ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D.ArLyne Diamond, Ph.D. has extensive experience in a wide range of disciplines and has specialized in People and Processes in the Workplace, ArLyne describes her work as: Helping You Get the Most out of Yourself and Others.

Diamond is a Professional Development Consultant in Silicon Valley. Her firm Diamond Associates (www.diamondassociates.net) helps corporate leaders improve their interpersonal relationship skills, image, and management style, as well as their strategic decision making abilities.

In addition, Dr. Diamond teaches university courses in: Organizational Development, International Business, Quality for Organizational Excellence, Leadership and Organizational Behavior, Working with a Multi-Cultural Organization, Marketing, Mediation, Diversity, Conflict Resolution, Interviewing and Hiring Practices, Ethics and Expectations in the Workplace, Group Decision Making and Problem-Solving, and Career and Professional/Personal Development.

Her books Training Your Board of Directors: A Manual for the CEOs, Board Members, Administrators and Executives of Corporations, Associations, Non-Profit and Religious Organizations (With a special section on the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which raises the standards for corporate governance, even if you are not legally bound by it)  and, The “Please” and “Thank You” of Fundraising for Non-Profits are available at  www.productivepublications.com .