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How does culture affect communication?

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How does culture affect communication?

As humans, we are intimately acquainted with both culture and communication. Culture is the sum, evolving total of social behavior and norms found in a group of people. At its largest level, a culture encompasses beliefs, laws, art, laws, and many other things. But cultures can be more niche. Jazz is a culture. Cinema is a culture. Eco-conscious business is a culture. 

Any group of people, organization, or business can through time and effort create a culture. To do so, there must be open lines of communication. In that way, communication helps create culture. But, once a culture has been created, whether it be in a company or some other organization, how does culture affect communication?

Morgan Rush, writing in his article, “Culture in Business Communication”, said culture affects communication on verbal and non-verbal levels. 

“Some cultures, including Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany, place high significance to the words actually spoken,” Rush writes. “Other cultures, including Japan and Arab cultures, still place significance on the spoken word, but also place great significance on the context of the conversation. Silence carries significance in all cultures, and this might be interpreted in different ways during cross-cultural business meetings.”

Considering how does culture affect communication for every culture in the world is outside the scope of a single article. (To better understand how your communication style may be perceived in other cultures, try out the culture compare tool inside F4S.)

For the purposes of this article, we will stick to communication in the sense that a business culture encourages its entire team to exchange thoughts and ideas.

And, of course, the following ways in which culture affects communication is not an exhaustive list. There are several ways in which this happens, but we are considering just a few of what we think are the most important for modern businesses. 

Table of contents
Foster open, networked leadership
Encourage collaboration across teams
Cultivate ideas through a psychologically safe culture
Culture needs to adapt to remote work
Change your culture, change your communication

Foster open, networked leadership

It’s not enough for a business’s culture to be strong. It must also be open and flexible. And that starts at the top with the company’s founders and its leadership. 

In a 2016 report, which surveyed a number of businesses, Deloitte found there is a de-emphasis on “positional leadership”. That is, a culture change is happening in business where leaders don’t make decisions simply because of their power or position. 

Instead, leaders are, as Deloitte notes, “being asked to inspire team loyalty through their expertise, vision, and judgment.” 

This new type of leader is also being expected to inspire people and encourage collaboration. To do this, a new culture must be built, fostering a network-style of communication, instead of top-down business directives. 

“Network leadership, unlike conventional leadership approaches, is collective, distributed, bottom-up, facilitative and emergent,” writes Claire Reinelt of the Oakland-based Leadership Learning community. “The individual model of leadership historically associated with strong organizations is more, directive, top-down, and transactional.”

“With organizations continuing to evolve rapidly beyond vertically integrated enterprises to networks and eco-systems, groups of leaders are being forced to work together in new ways, including collaboration across generations, geographies, func-tions, and internal and external teams,” Deloitte writes. 

Organizational leadership should not be considered absolutely ineffective in all businesses. Some companies, especially those in the trades, require decisive owners and managers. But even then, leaders should work to cultivate open lines of communication within the company, and a feeling that ideas from anyone are welcomed. 

Think of networked leadership as an open forum, and a place to learn, adapt, and evolve. And it can only happen if an existing business adopts a cultural shift to make networked communication happen; or if a new business opens with that as a foundational principle.

Encourage collaboration across teams

Apple is well known for its various teams collaborating with one another. Steve Jobs himself brought a marketing, branding, and design mindset to the creation of computing products. That mindset filtered down into his company. 

In a 2015 interview with Mashable, Apple executive Phil Schiller spoke about how the company’s different teams (hardware, software, apps, etc.) work together to create a product. 

"Today, those teams are not only integrated and designing something together, they’re actually thinking of features that could only exist because of that integration and solving problems that could only be solved because of that unique advantage,” said Schiller. 

"Ever since Steve came back [in 1997] and worked with [designer] Jony [Ives] on redefining the entire process, the industrial design teams, the engineering teams are joined at the hip in the work they do, Schiller added. “They think up solutions to problems together as the disciplines are merged into a seamless process."

To do this, Apple had to create a culture that allowed the cross-pollinating communication of teams. If the industrial design and engineering teams had been siloed, and not encouraged to collaborate, Apple products might well have suffered as a result. 

But the concept of collaborative teams is not unique to Apple. In its 2007 report on collaborative teams, the Harvard Business Review found that the orientation process at Nokia (the leader in smartphones at the time) ensured that “a large number of people on any team know one another,” and that the company could count on teams communicating with one another to solve problems. 

The big takeaway here is that this type of culture is intentional. And a culture that embraces the cross-pollination of teams is one that has better communication and, ideally, better fruits of the company’s labor. 

Cultivate ideas through a psychologically safe culture

Related to the above sections is the concept of “psychological safety”. It’s the idea that a company can create a culture where workers feel safe to express ideas and take risks without being punished if the idea doesn’t work, or even ignored by superiors from the get-go. 

Several years ago, Uber came under fire for its toxic work culture. Co-founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick was often criticized for engendering a dysfunctional work culture, full of aggression, discrimination, and other other issues. In a 2017 New York Times article, it was reported that a manager threatened “to beat an underperforming employee’s head in with a baseball bat.” A healthy work culture, with equally healthy communication, would not allow such a situation to develop.

Several years ago, Google launched a study code-named Project Aristotle. Inspired by the Greek philosopher’s quote, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, the tech giant wanted to find out what makes a team successful. Google’s internal research found a lot of useful information about teams, including that it mattered less who was on a team, and more about how the team worked collaboratively. At the top of their list was psychological safety. 

Psychological safety refers to an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive,” as reported on re:Work, a Google project. “In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.”

“The Google researchers found that individuals on teams with higher psychological safety are less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives,” the re:Work guide also notes.

If a company can create a type of culture that fosters this type of unencumbered communication, then its overall success should improve. 

Culture needs to adapt to remote work

With the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are working online and remotely. As a result, businesses have had to adapt to this reality in real time. And for many companies this means making its culture not just physical but virtual. 

Company Zoom meetings—or any type of Zoom meeting—are now daily practices. But don’t assume that your work culture’s emphasis on communication will endure with just daily Zoom meetings. 

As Slack recently noted, people working remotely may need personal connection. Something that was easy in-person, but now takes effort to establish. 

“Having people travel to the location of their other team members really helps to provide that contextual knowledge that’s missing [from digital communication],” says Stanford University professor Pamela Hinds told Slack. “And the benefits accrue for a long period of time—that knowledge stays with people after they go home.”

If your company culture is open and collaborative, think of ways to replicate that for employees working remotely during the pandemic. Virtual brainstorming sessions are one approach, but maybe think about pairing different teams in virtual break-out rooms, or even make room for informal company conversations during working hours. 

If such virtual approaches to communication are explored, overall company and teams performance should at the least be sustained, and at best improved. 

Change your culture, change your communication

In tackling the question, "How does culture affect communication?" the ideas we discussed above are not exactly easy. As with anything in life and the workplace, creating a culture that welcomes and benefits from open lines of communication requires work. 

It also requires worker buy-in to the culture. And so, to create such a culture, finding the right talent will become equally important in making sure ideas can be encouraged and freely exchanged. 

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