How significant are cultural differences for multicultural organisations?

Posted by Domna in Building cross-cultural effectiveness on 10th January 2011 | be the first to Comment »

As a Southern European living in the UK and frequently working in international settings with managers and employees from diverse cultural backgrounds, I have had many opportunities to reflect on the significance of culture for communication practice and communication effectiveness in global organisations. As much cross-cultural management and intercultural communication research clearly shows, culture shapes the way we see the world and this in turn shapes both the way we express ourselves and the way we understand each other. Becoming more aware of this complexity and diversity in the global workplace should improve both managerial effectiveness and strengthen the relevance and impact of global communication strategies. From this perspective it is great to see that culture and cultural differences are finally creeping up the agenda of professional communication practitioners.

What concerns me, however, is that quite often ‘culture’ is only taken to refer to national cultures and to a small number of predefined, stable characteristics associated with a particular nation. Often for example cultural values such as collectivism or power distance as defined in Geert Hofstede’s very popular work, have been assumed to determine whether or not employees would be willing to speak up or challenge their colleagues or managers. This is simply not a good enough assumption. As some of the most persuasive recent research in intercultural communication shows (for example the work of Francesca Bargiela-Chiappini and Catherine Nickerson), while insights about cultural values help us to understand how a society as a whole organises work and approaches people management and communication, they do not determine how individual employees respond to specific situations in specific organisational contexts. Culture in multinational organisations is not simply about nationalities. It is rather a holistic, complex, dynamic phenomenon.

I was recently part of a team who delivered a change management workshop to a group of senior executives in China. The group included both British expats and Asian executives. During the course my colleagues and I (all Europeans) frequently observed what could be described as ‘Asian’ communication behaviours in our clients- a consideration for group harmony, for example. These, however, were not exhibited solely by our Asian delegates, but by many of the British expats, as well. At the same time it was extraordinary to see how different our Chinese delegates were from each other in their communication style and in the way they responded and contributed to the workshop. Whereas this difference was partly down to language competence, this was by no means the only reason for such behavioural diversity. Background, experience, education, role, even gender had something to do with it. In short, it was not just one cultural system that affected how people communicated, but many cultural systems interacting with each other and with the specific context of communication.

In summary, I believe that while it is very useful to understand the value differences that drive communication preferences in other societies, we cannot rely solely on our understanding of such differences to build effective global communication strategies in multinational businesses. My own research has shown for example, that to do that successfully we need first and foremost to understand our own organisational context and how, in all its cultural complexity, it influences employee meanings.

See also “Culture and the interpretation of values messages in multinational organisations: from complex theories to simple practices