Diversity at work: direct communication (4)

This blog is the last one in a series of 4 about creating a culture in which diversity is not only present but also explored and used to the business’s advantage.


Diversity at work


Diversity is hot. Every organization stresses the importance of ‘getting the numbers right’ these days. Every organization tries to make minority groups disappear by creating equal chances for all. Getting the numbers right however is only step one. Organizations do not benefit when all flavors of human diversity are represented, while different voices don’t get heard. The culture has to change, not the numbers.

Company culture is truly diverse when employees invite and welcome differences. This is a culture where people like to explore their differences (curiosity), welcome different views than their own (vulnerability), feel invited to be different (make a difference) and clearly express their differences (clear communication).

Attitude 4: Clear Communication


All key elements of true diversity as introduced in the previous 3 blogs will remain without effect if the communication about our differences is not effective. And although clear communication sounds too obvious to be brought up as a special topic, it is not. Open and clear communication about our differences is one of the most difficult things in an (international) office environment, as the expectations we have of ‘clear communication’ are different for different people and different cultures.

Speaking up about your opinion – certainly when it differs from the norm – can be a risky business. At the moment you have stated your opinion in public, you have put yourself in the spotlight, and you are responsible for what you have said. Your point of view is at the risk of attack by others, and even you yourself may be the subject of attack for holding such an opinion in the first place.

You have to make sure that others can understand very well what you have to say. This means opinions should be expressed with little words and should be sharply formulated. Clear, concise and to-the-point. Many great ideas get lost in an amorphous blurb of unclear words, or may not be understood because ‘slang’ was used. Expressing your thoughts, opinions and feelings in a simple way is essential for making your opinion heard. This is even more important when English is your native language: be aware that others – who have other native languages – may have difficulty with the nuance you put in your sentences and the colorful way you can express yourself in your native language. Talk at the level where others can tune in to your message: keep it simple.

It is inevitable that differences of opinion come with friction. Two points of view (two ‘truths’) collide. Exploring these differences requires that people do not shy away from expressing their – sometimes opposing – views, and ensure that the differences that emerge get explored. This does not mean that conflict should be sought for, but it means that the fear of conflict does not withhold people from having an opinion and expressing it. The uncomfortable questions need to get asked, and the unpleasant feelings of interpersonal disagreement should be accepted in order to communicate openly about differences.


Advocacy and Inquiry


Good communication takes time. Especially when we want to benefit from the richness of different ideas (diversity of thought), understanding where and how we differ is key. This relies on the skills of Inquiry and Advocacy. Inquiry is the use of questions in order to truly understand the position of the other person: it’s a state of exploration in which you ask questions such that you better and better understand where the other person comes from. Deep listening would be a term that describes this state of mind. Advocacy is being clear on your own assertions: formulate your opinions, requests, and promises in such a way that there can be no confusion as to what you mean.

Especially when we want that the organization takes benefit from our differences, it is important that we explore these differences in-depth, using the skills of Inquiry. This goes well beyond asking the other person for his/her opinion: it is merely exploring these opinions in such depth that you truly understand which aspects you differ. It will often be needed to ask the confrontational and unpleasant questions that bring the nuances of your differences to the surface.

At the same time, it requires to be crystal clear of your own position and using Advocacy in such a way that your unfiltered opinion gets heard by others. This requires you to assert your opinion regardless of how you think others will react to it, or how others want to hear it. And although this is not a call to be blunt and confrontational for the sake of it, you occasionally will have to confront when your ideas are radical and be ready for friction when you take position clearly.

Exploring differences of opinion requires direct communication. There is no value in diversity if the present differences do not get expressed openly and explored meticulously. And even when our cultural programming tells us expressing differences of opinion under certain circumstances is to be avoided, we should feel confident to overcome our cultural programming occasionally to make ourselves heard.


Overcoming cultural programming


Our cultural programming is just that: programming of the mind, telling us that certain behaviors are ok (“This is the way we do things here”) and certain behaviors are not. These learned behaviors define our comfort zone: we have learned that staying within these boundaries leads to acceptance within our culture, and moving ourselves outsides these boundaries involves the risk of criticism or rejection.

Not all cultural programming is suitable for all circumstances. Different situations require different responses to be effective. Some of these responses may go against our main cultural programming.

When we say ‘clear communication’ is essential to benefit from the diversity of thought, this resonates with cultural programming where disagreements are surfaced, and where people express themselves short and concisely, speaking their mind and asking uncomfortable questions. These habits are characteristic of low-context cultures, in which people use direct communication regardless of hierarchy or status.

In many collectivistic cultures, however – and even in some individualistic cultures – high-context communication prevails, and negative statements or disagreements are avoided in public. The differences of opinion would be worded in such a way that nobody loses face or feels uncomfortable. This cultural programming may prevent the open expression of feelings and thoughts – certainly in public – and leads to more careful, diplomatic and less direct forms of communication.


Leave your comfort zone and adapt

If people want to be effective in cross-cultural situations, they will have to occasionally leave their comfort zone, and use behaviors that are less well known to them. Not because this is better, but because this is more effective in the circumstances we are in.

For example, the Dutch cultural programming is to be direct, voice our opinions and confront others in a direct way when we disagree. Nevertheless, in many circumstances, we may not be effective by sticking with this cultural stereotype. When trying to win a large contract with a Japanese multinational I may decide to withhold, and express my opinion more indirectly if I want to be effective. In diplomatic contexts where many parties need to reach an agreement about sensitive issues, you may want to express your opinion more diplomatic and less confrontational. People have to adjust in order to be effective.

The Japanese cultural programming is to choose your words carefully, speak indirectly (high-context) and take into account the hierarchy when deciding to speak up or not. Nevertheless, the Japanese may not always be effective if they would stick to this cultural programming at all times. I have witnessed very effective Japanese managers who were very direct and confrontational when the situation asked for this. They know that If they want to be effective, they have to adjust every now and then.

I believe the same holds for the behaviors that stimulate a diverse organization: in order to effectively benefit from different opinions and thoughts, people may have to leave their cultural comfort zone and use other behaviors. Not because these are ‘better’ behaviors, but because they yield better results in these circumstances. This holds especially in multi-cultural environments where many different cultures interact and cooperate. These different sub-cultures don’t share the same cultural programming and don’t share the same context for their communication. In these situations, we need to look for behaviors that are effective for the goals we have.




And so whether we are Japanese, Dutch, Brazilian or Finnish, if we want to benefit from the diverse points-of-view that exist in our team, communication has to be direct. Team members will need to get comfortable exploring their differences and talk openly – sharply and directly – about the nature of these differences.

The best international teams (with members from multiple cultures) install this kind of team culture. Within this culture, the norm is to talk openly and directly about differences, without fear for friction, hurting someone’s feelings or loss of face. And to adapt to that culture, some people have to adapt more than others. The most effective multicultural teams I have seen are teams that together make agreements about the culture they want to install in their team, overruling their country-of-origin cultural programming.

Being flexible and willing to adapt is a prerequisite for effectively working in a multicultural, diverse team. Let me know your view on this. You can be direct and to-the-point, my cultural programming can handle this 🙂


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