Effective Cross Cultural Communications – The Leader’s Role

Effective Cross Cultural Communications – The Leader’s Role

7.6 min read

Paul Dumais

To communicate effectively, we must be thoughtful and look closely at the unique attributes, attitudes and behaviors of people before making predictions about them. In other words, we must listen and understand from where the other person is coming.

Many of our communications are habitual as we hardly pay attention to our communication behavior. However, when we face a new situation, such as a cross cultural encounter, we seek clues to guide our behavior.  As we become comfortable in the new situation, we revert back to more habitual communications, and are no longer mindful of the other. We often categorize people with whom we communicate based upon physical and cultural characteristics, or their attitudes and beliefs. The problem with categorizing is that it creates blinders in us that prevent us from truly hearing and knowing the people with whom we are communicating.

To improve the effectiveness of our communications with all people, in particular, people of other cultures, we need to be aware of how we communicate – we must be mindful. Awareness of our communications and the related competence can be described as a four-step process: 1. unconscious incompetence – we misinterpret others’ communication behavior but are not aware of it; 2. conscious incompetence – we are aware that we misinterpret others’ communication behavior but choose not to do anything to change; 3. conscious competence – we are aware of what we think about communication behavior and modify our behavior to make the communications more effective – we become mindful of our communication behaviors; and 3. unconscious competence – we have practiced the skills of effective communication and it becomes second nature to us.

Cultural Considerations in Communications

Low and High Context Cultures

Some cultures are low context and some are high.  This refers to the communication process.  A high-context communication process is where most of the information being communicated is in the physical context or in the person and not in the message. A low-context communication process is where the information being conveyed is in the communications – clear and direct.  The United States is a low-context culture, where communications are direct and complete. We have sayings such as “get to the point” or “say what you mean” that clearly demonstrate the low-context.  On the other hand, Japan, China and Korea are high-context cultures where people make a greater distinction between insiders and outsiders and where the individual communicating expects the hearer to know what is bothering him without being specific.  There are advantages to high context cultures in that people raised in high-context systems expect more of others than do the participants in low-context systems.  For us low-context communicators, we want things clear and out on the table, and we get annoyed by communications done in an indirect fashion.

The point here (and I will get to the point for us low context people) is that it is important to understand the form of communications that predominates in a culture in order to correctly interpret and understand the behavior of those with whom we are communicating.

Monochronic and Polychronic Cultures

A monochromic culture is one where people have involvement in one event at a time.  A polychronic culture is one where people are involved in two or more events at the same time.  In extremely monochronic cultures, people focus on a single task or project and see anything outside of the task or project as an interruption.  Conversely, in more polychronic cultures, people have involvement in several activities, moving back and forth between them easily.  In a polychronic culture, an unexpected customer dropping in would be considered part of the normal flow of tasks and not considered an interruption.  In Arab nations, it is common for a leader to have several people in his office discussing and working on separate and unrelated tasks.

For us monochronic Americans, we have our agendas and work through each item, one at a time.  It would be a large distraction to be in an office where we have business to discuss with someone and there are five other people transacting different business, and all happening at the same time.  Again, the point here is that it is important to understand the predominate mode of operation in the culture in order to correctly interpret and understand the behavior of those with whom we are communicating, so we can adjust ourselves.

Most Needed – Organizational Glue and An Environment of Trust

Edward Hall says that culture is communications and communications is culture.  Whether a husband-wife relationship, a friendship or in an organization, success is dependent in large part by the effectiveness of communications.  As can be seen above, adding a cross cultural dimension makes effective communications more challenging.

What can leaders do to encourage effective communications?  First, they can make sure that their organization has in place a core ideology which brings its people together – the glue that holds its people together.  Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, “Built to Last,”, define the core ideology as “that which provides the bonding glue that holds an organization together as it grows, decentralizes, diversifies, expands globally and attains diversity.” The core ideology is made up of two things: core purpose and core values. The core purpose is the fundamental reason for being – the importance people attach to the organization’s work. It is the organization’s identity. Core values are those essential and enduring tenants that have intrinsic value for and are important to the people inside the organization. The core ideology holds the organization’s people together, like glue, no matter from what culture they are, by unifying people toward the achievement of the organization’s purpose.

A second thing leaders can do is to create an environment of trust.  Trust is the first and foremost leadership attribute, as determined in the GLOBE Study of 17,000 people in 62 countries. Trust comes from being in relationship, where people see us in action and see that we are not in this leadership thing for ourselves, but that we are pursuing a higher purpose. It is determined by the leader’s communicative and supportive behaviors, as the amount of information received about the job and the organization helps build trust in top management and direct supervisors.  Trust takes a long time to build, and it can be lost in a moment by one significant and selfish act. People watch leaders. People are looking for leaders who do what they say they will do – this is integrity. They look for leaders who do the right thing at the right time for the right reason, as stated by . Bruce Winston in his book, “Be a Leader, for God’s Sake.”

Trust theory has established that leader behavior has a great deal to do with creating a culture of trust. It has also established the importance of trust in organizational effectiveness. An important role of the organization’s leaders is the establishment of relationships characterized by confidence, trust and reliance.  As determined by Jeffrey Cufaude in his 1999 article entitled “Creating organizational trust”, the following factors are associated with a culture of trust in an organization: the depth and quality of personal relationships; clarity of roles and responsibilities; frequency, timeliness and forthrightness of communications; competence to get the job done; clarity of shared purpose (core ideology); direction and vision; and honoring promises and commitments.


Edward Hall concluded that his many years of study convinced him that the real job is not understanding the culture of another, but that of your own. Culture has a huge impact on how we live our lives.  If we are to relate effectively with people from other cultures, then we must know how our culture impacts us.  One of the most effective ways to learn about ourselves is to take seriously the cultures of others.  By doing this, it forces us to pay attention to the details of our lives and what differentiates us from others. It gives us a sense of vitality and awareness.  It keeps us continually learning and growing as people.  Effective communications results when we walk in the shoes of another.  This means making ourselves vulnerable with other people, something people are more willing to do when they work in a culture of trust.

(In writing this article, I relied heavily upon the works of William Gudykunst and Young Kim entitled “Communicating with Strangers,” Edward Hall entitled “The Silent Language” and W. Howell entitled “The empathic communicator.”)

About the author:

Paul Dumais is Director of Asset Management and Investment Planning at Iberdrola USA, a family of electric and gas utilities serving customers in New England and in the State of New York. He is second year student in the Doctorate of Strategic Leadership Program in the School of Global Leadership and Entrepreneurship at Regent University.  Mr. Dumais holds an MBA from the University of Southern Maine. He lives with his wife Kathleen in Webster, New York and may be reached for comment at paul.dumais@iberdrolausa.com

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