Employees with diverse backgrounds have different interpretations of languages, signs and other forms of communication. This affects how they converse, make decisions and approach conflict. Organizational diversity should inspire teamwork on a global scale with each employee performing at their best. However, ineffective or lack of communication as a result of diversity in the workplace can lead to confusion of business and customer needs, low employee morale and division among employees — requiring a need for cultural awareness.

It is easy to overlook the communication challenges that we often take for granted. This blog will address several of those challenges that can lead to a disconnected workforce.

I came across an article discussing the dialogue between employees of different cultures by Harvard Business Review. Here are four categories that can impede your team’s success:

  • Direct versus indirect communication.
  • Trouble with accents and fluency.
  • Different attitudes toward hierarchy and authority.
  • Conflicting norms for decision-making.

Direct vs. Indirect Communication

Communication style in Western cultures are direct and the meaning is seemingly obvious. Other cultures tend to be more discrete in the way they present their message. As a result, communication between a Westerner and a non-Westerner can result in confusion within the workplace. This can occur during face-to-face interactions and when communication is virtual. Needless to say, how employees of diverse cultures respond to one another is a major determining factor towards the cohesiveness of an organization. For example, in a Western culture, the question might be, “Is option A or option B more effective?” Whereas in a non-Western culture, employees may have to imply or suggest a particular option without stating it directly. Oftentimes, in a Western culture, during a board meeting, when someone nods, we tend to think they agree with the statement. However, in other cultures, a nod doesn’t necessarily mean mutual agreement, rather, just an acknowledgement.

Trouble with Accents and Fluency

A more obvious challenge within an organizationally diverse workplace is the language barrier among employees, including accents and fluency. Although English is the standard language internationally for business, many non-English speakers can feel unnoticed and unappreciated in the workplace because they have difficulty conveying what they want to say in their non-native language. Employees who may be subject matter experts, may take a backseat to contributing to the team because of their inability to get a message across in their second language. This can sometimes cause frustration and interpersonal conflict. They may become less engaged and motivated as a team player, and become an impediment to the collaborative learning process as a whole. An organization can be negatively affected and fail to see an increase in their return on investment.

Different Attitudes toward Hierarchy and Authority

In any organization, teamwork is essential to success and profitability. However, in some cultures, employees are treated different based on their rank within the organization. Diversity training in the workplace should account for negotiation tactics among different cultures. For example, multicultural employees have different ways of presenting an idea to the manager or CEO. In some organizations, employees must present to higher-level team members and up the corporate ladder before reaching the executive level. Other organizations have relatively flat hierarchical structures where employees and leaders work as a unified team. A lack of cultural awareness can result in a disconnected workforce and leave some employees feeling left out and unrecognized.

Conflicting Norms for Decision-Making

It isn’t surprising that individual cultures have their own way of reaching an agreement and coming to an executive decision. Cultures differ on how long the decision-making process takes, what steps must be in place beforehand and how much effort should be put in. Unlike other cultures that tend to withhold information until they have performed analyses and comparisons before reaching a decision, Americans tend to be very quick at deciding, according to the Harvard Business Review article.

I read an article in the Ivey Business Journal that discussed how Americans tend to negotiate by making compromises and trade-offs; however, the French will agree on a set of basic principles to guide them throughout the negotiation process. While diversity in the workplace breeds different attitudes towards hierarchy, it is also important to be aware of the conflicting norms for decision-making.

Successful organizations create a culture of awareness that inspires employees to respect one another through diversity training. This mutual understanding among managers and employees encourages new ideas, different perspectives and collaboration, making all the difference within an organization.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss several strategies for effective cross-cultural communication within the workplace.