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 consists of diverse values and norms, and sometimes they conflict.
Whether they stem from greater societal factors or individual experiences, cultural differences can create communication barriers that hurt team productivity and collaboration. It’s important 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:
The internet is overflowing with articles deconstructing the cultural differences between Millenials, Generation X, and Baby Boomers. And don’t forget, remnants of the Silent Generation and a growing Gen Z cohort also round out the workforce. 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.
When someone moves from a larger corporation to a startup or vice versa, they often face some form of culture shock. Someone used to an environment emphasizing seniority and status may find adapting to a flatter organizational structure challenging. Someone used to self-organizing may struggle to adjust to top-down approaches.
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 those around them.
Where people grow up or currently live can also 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.
Nationality or Ethnicity
Ethnicity or national origin creates a lot of cultural barriers regarding 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 when speaking and often address one another using last names with honorifics.
An example of how we see this formality in business is customer service. People expect waiters to ask how their food is in American restaurants, and friendly chit-chat is desirable. In Japan, unobtrusive interactions are a hallmark of quality customer service.
From national languages to regional dialects to cultural colloquialisms, verbal communication takes many forms. Cultural barriers can develop when workers have different native languages. They may have difficulty communicating specific ideas or picking up on the nuances of verbal cues and idioms.
Even when people share the same native language, subtle differences in how we speak and express ourselves can cause misunderstandings. A turn of phrase that seems harmless to one person may have negative connotations to another.
How cultural barriers can affect communication
Taking a proactive approach to managing cultural barriers is the best way to avoid communication breakdowns. By encouraging good habits in the workplace, you can build teams that benefit from diversity. Before we discuss how to tackle differences, let’s look at potential obstacles that can harm communication.
- Lack of trust: when cultural barriers prevent workers from doing their jobs well, others may question their abilities. As team members struggle to collaborate, team trust erodes and hinders progress.
- Tribalism: an ‘us vs. them’ mentality can form between people of different cultures. If people feel that their thinking, acting, and working styles are fundamentally opposed to someone else’s, they may become closed off to ideas and input.
- Stagnation: sometimes, leaders try to overcome cultural barriers by stifling diversity. They may build a multicultural workforce but create policies discouraging change or new ideas. In this scenario, communication slows down, and workers don’t feel safe voicing opinions that don’t fit the status quo.
Manage cultural barriers to improve communication
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 barriers are on your team. Some may be immediately apparent, while others require you to seek feedback. Ask your team what work and management styles they prefer.
Remember, a sign of a great manager is not their ability to equally apply a single management style across a team. It’s their ability to adapt to suit the needs of each team member as an individual. Most of your employees will respond positively as you demonstrate a willingness to learn about and accommodate cultural differences.
How to approach differences
Once you’ve identified cultural barriers, you can approach them as such:
- 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 impact a person’s ability to complete their job, you’ll need to take steps to help them adapt their workflow.
- Identify whether or not you can reasonably accommodate the cultural difference. Sometimes, there’s a simple solution, like changing how you praise someone for a job well done or providing additional positive feedback. Other times, a person’s accommodations may be incompatible with the job itself.
- Follow through with reasonable accommodations, and lay out a plan of action for changes you can’t make immediately. Once you’ve decided to make an exception or change your behavior towards an individual, make sure you’re following up to ensure they get the continued support they need to succeed. If no reasonable accommodations are available, determine what steps you should take to ensure this person receives the training and support they need to adapt their working style.
- 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, such as common signs of respect and proper ways to address one another. You can learn a lot from a quick Google search, and your entire team and company will be better off for your efforts.
One company can’t accommodate every preference of every individual. 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.
Whenever possible, create opportunities for team members to get to know one another and explore new perspectives. Tools like team chat apps are great for accommodating work and recreational topics. Certain chat apps allows team members to create topics where they can discuss everything — from tracking projects to sharing personal interests. The more you encourage people to be open and empathetic towards one another, the easier it will be to foster collaboration and unity in the workplace.
This post was originally published on November 21, 2016, and updated most recently on February 10, 2022.