By James Humes
Today’s businesses are complex entities. However, one fundamental principle of success remains constant – the need for communication.
Communication manifests in various forms, both verbal and non-verbal. One area of increasing concern for businesses is how to nurture and maintain effective intercultural communication between employees.
As workforces become increasingly multicultural and businesses continue to expand overseas, the homogenous workforce has become a thing of the past. The cultural diversity of businesses necessitates that internal communication now takes note of the intercultural element if it is to be truly effective.
Management today have to ensure that they are understanding and being understood across cultural boundaries.
The following ten tips on intercultural management are meant to provide a starting point to managers dealing with culturally diverse teams. These merely scratch the surface and it is always recommended that managers facing particular issues should consult interculturalists to help diagnose and cure the problems.
Respect and Courtesy
The fundamental pillar of all intercultural communication is respect and courtesy. Showing your appreciation of and consideration for others breeds a culture of openness and civility. If colleagues request special treatment due to cultural or religious circumstances ensure these are met (within reason).
Tolerance is key to intercultural communication. Not only is tolerance needed in terms of respecting people’s views and beliefs but also tolerance for different working practices and mistakes. If an atmosphere of non-tolerance is created within an, it is more likely that you will not be getting the best out of your employees.
If cross cultural differences are proving an obstacle to communication within the workplace, try and analyse where things are going wrong. Take a step back and look at who is involved, the context, the situation, the means of communication (i.e. face to face, email, phone) and the outcome. Only by properly recognising the root of a problem will you be able to solve it.
An understanding of all the cultural nuances is a tall task. An intercultural manager should therefore be aware of the major cultural taboos of his/her staff to ensure offense or misunderstandings are not caused. Simple things such as providing a vegetarian alternative for Hindu colleagues at company functions makes a big difference for that employee.
Know the Law
If the country you work in has legislation covering diversity issues in the workplace, familiarise yourself with these to ensure you comply. Cultural insensitivity can and does lead to unnecessary employment tribunals. Many diversity trainers or manuals will offer some useful case studies of how to manage diversity issues.
It is a good idea to encourage frequent and positive interaction within a culturally diverse workforce. This leads to stronger interpersonal relationships and a greater awareness of one another.
Although many of your staff will speak and use English this does not mean they are fully competent. For those that speak English as a second or third language it is best to avoid using slang, colloquialisms or phrases.
Make Sure People Understand
Always make sure a message has been processed and understood. Although initially frustrating, it negates having to chase up on colleagues for missed deadlines or returning pieces of work due to incorrect format or content. When giving instructions, diplomatically ask for them to be repeated back to you.
It is always a good idea to write instructions down to ensure that a message or request is fully understood. Some employees may not feel confident enough to state they have not understood instructions out of fear of loss of face or looking incompetent. Writing down instructions allows them to re-read requests and is also a good back-up to show that instructions were relayed properly.
The good intercultural manager is a flexible manager. Understanding where potential obstacles lie in communication and adapting is good practice. For example, graphics are sometimes a more useful way of presenting information. So, rather than using text to explain health and safety issues, simply use illustrations that can be grasped across cultures. In presentations, rather than providing staff with tables of statistics, having them presented in charts and diagrams will have a lot more impact.
The role of the intercultural manager is by no means an easy one, however it does offer the art of management another dimension and a different challenge that must be met in order for the human elements of organisations to succeed.