It’s no secret that effective communication is central to the success of any organization, regardless of industry. But in order to truly understand what it takes to communicate effectively, you must first understand the different cultural factors that influence the way people interact with one another.

Our world is more interconnected than ever before, a fact that has given rise to many changes in the ways that businesses and organizations operate. Workplaces are more diverse, remote teams are scattered across the country or around the world, and businesses that once sold products to a single demographic might now sell to a global market. All of these factors have converged to make cross-cultural communication a vital part of organizational success.

Here’s a look at why cross-cultural communication is important in the workplace, and the steps you can take to overcome cultural barriers and improve communication within your organization.

What is Cross-Cultural Communication?

Cross-cultural communication is the process of recognizing both differences and similarities among cultural groups in order to effectively engage within a given context. In other words, cross-cultural communication refers to the ways in which people from different cultural backgrounds adjust to improve communication with one another.

In today’s rapidly changing professional world, it’s critical to gain an understanding of how cultural elements influence communication between individuals and groups in the workplace. Developing strong cross-cultural communication skills is the first step in creating a successful work environment that brings out the best in all of an organization’s team members.

Why is Cross-Cultural Communication Important?

To be successful in any industry, organizations need to understand the communication patterns of employees, customers, investors, and other audiences. Awareness and willingness to adjust allow for the exchange of information regardless of cultural values, norms, and behaviors that may vary between audiences.

Dr. Patty Goodman in front of China’s National Museum

Given the different backgrounds that each audience comes from, it is critical to understand how culture influences communication, and how this can impact organizational processes. Dr. Patty Goodman, faculty lead for cross-cultural communication in Northeastern’s Master’s in Corporate and Organizational Communications program, says, “Effective cross-cultural communication is essential to preventing and resolving conflict, building networks, and creating a satisfactory work environment for everyone involved.”

Additionally, the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports that culture has a significant impact on productivity. As such, it is important to be cognizant of the fact that “employees from different backgrounds are motivated by different incentives and react differently to various management and communication styles.”

How to Improve Cross-Cultural Communication

Here are four tips to help you improve cross-cultural communication in your organization.

1. Embrace Agility

The inability or unwillingness to adapt to change is a common barrier to cross-cultural communication. Often, people are reluctant to accept new things due to an unconscious fear that doing so will change their culture or belief system in some way, Goodman explains. If these assumptions are not questioned, actions can be detrimental to personal and organizational growth. By becoming aware of unconscious barriers or subconscious biases, people can become more open to adapting.

“When an organization becomes too set in its ways, it can halt improvements because they are not open to trying different ways of doing things,” Goodman says.

Instead, organizations need to be focused on continuous improvement, which requires a certain degree of flexibility and willingness to try different ways of doing things. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. Rather, the best way to address the issue often involves getting started on an individual level.

To begin, consider stepping out of your comfort zone and trying new things in the workplace. In terms of cross-cultural communication, one of the best ways to embrace this idea is to try new methods of doing things in ways that can help you better understand the perspectives of others.

2. Be Open-Minded

Similarly, closed-mindedness is another barrier to cross-cultural communication that can hinder the success of an organization.

“People get caught in the trap of thinking that there is one right way to do things and everything else is wrong,” Goodman points out.

On a personal level, becoming more open-minded can be as simple as learning more about an idea that you wouldn’t have considered otherwise. Being exposed to new viewpoints and making the effort to understand them can have an impact on how you make decisions moving forward.

On the other hand, when you’re in a situation where you must work with a closed-minded individual, Goodman suggests you ask questions and look for opportunities to offer a range of thoughts for your audience by providing reliable and valid pieces of data. Leveraging accurate data can be a powerful tool when convincing someone to consider other ideas. By discussing options and listening, you can build trust.

However, presenting this information in an effective way can be a challenge. If people feel overwhelmed by the information or do not trust its validity, it can have the opposite effect. Be sure to carefully identify and present the information to successfully encourage others to approach other ideas with an open mind.

3. Facilitate Meaningful Conversation

A lack of communication in an organization can exacerbate cultural differences between individuals. In an environment that does not allow for open communication, people tend not to speak up or share comments and feedback with one another.

So, how might members of an organization facilitate open conversation and freely interact with each other? Although the organizational culture is unlikely to change overnight, making the effort to spark conversations on the individual level can be a step in the right direction.

“One of the best ways to get started is to connect with someone who might have a different perspective from your own,” Goodman remarks. “Start a conversation with someone in another department and ask questions, and try to gain a better understanding of their point of view by actively listening.”

Not only will this allow you to gain an understanding and appreciation for another person’s perspective, but it will also help to build strong relationships in the workplace. Goodman recommends “being curious, asking questions, and being open to different points of view.”

Encouraging meaningful interactions also has a significant impact on the overall environment by creating a comfortable space where team members can openly share their thoughts and ideas.

4. Become Aware

Another important step to improving cross-cultural communication in the workplace is to become more culturally and self-aware.

On a personal level, you should make an effort to acknowledge your own implicit biases and assumptions that affect the way you interact with others. Although this may be easier said than done, you can start by making a conscious attempt to empathize with your audience and gain a better understanding of their point of view.

At the organizational level, Goodman recommends starting with an audit of internal communications. Throughout this process, you should be asking how your mission and company values are defined, whether or not they are inclusive, and whether the team’s various cultures have been taken into account. Performing this analysis will give you a good idea of the state of your corporate culture, including areas in your organizational communication strategy that you can improve to better serve your team members and achieve your goals.

Improving Workplace Communication

Cross-cultural communication is just one (albeit important) aspect of an organization’s overall communication strategy, and improving in this area can be a great first step in maximizing employee and business performance overall.

In addition to the tips listed above, learning the foundations of corporate communications can provide you with the skills needed to understand all of the factors that influence communication in the workplace. Earning a master’s degree in corporate communications can help you do just that.

Northeastern’s Corporate and Organizational Communications program, in particular, is designed to instill students with the theoretical foundations of communication theory, as well as the practical skills necessary to excel professionally.

“Formal education challenges you to think critically and creates an environment where you can practice your communication skills in order to be effective in the real world,” Goodman says.

By enrolling in such a program, you are met with countless opportunities to interact with experts in the field and practice experiential learning.

Additionally, Northeastern’s program offers several concentrations tailored to students’ career goals, including a concentration in cross-cultural communication. This particular track offers practical tools to successfully navigate cultural fields of interest and gain skills to develop a cultural audit. A graduate certificate in cross-cultural communication is also available.

Our faculty member, Dr Patty Goodman, was interviewed for this article by Tim Stobierski, a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Northeastern University.

What are your experiences with cross-cultural communication in your workplace?

Posted by Carl Zangerl, Faculty