Cross-Cultural & Gender Communications. Culture
Communications in the Workplace. By: Wienclaw, Ruth A., Research Starters: Business, 2020
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Communications in the Workplace
Good communication skills are essential for success in virtually any organization. No matter how good one’s technical skills or how innovative one’s ideas, if not communicated clearly to others, they are irrelevant. Employees today need to be able to effectively communicate within the organization to each other, their bosses, and their subordinates as well outside the organization to customers or clients and vendors. Clear communication that unambiguously conveys one’s meaning, however, is not a simple task and can be hampered by numerous barriers including different perceptions of a situation, filtering, language, jargon and ambiguity. In addition, cultural and gender differences can compound the process, making communication even more difficult. However, through such techniques as active listening, disclosure, and feedback, employees can learn to become better communicators and improve their own effectiveness and that of the organization.
Communication is the process of transmitting information between two or more parties. Although communication is often thought of as a verbal process, transmissions can also be written or even nonverbal, with our actions or body language communicating our message. Communication can be intentional (the interoffice memo describing a new implementation policy) or unintentional (the boss receives the message—correct or not—that an employee is not a hard worker when they never get assignments in on time).
Good communication skills are essential for success in business. No matter how innovative one’s idea is, no matter how skilled the service one offers, no matter how much the marketplace needs the product or service, if the business cannot articulate what it can do for potential customers or clients, it will not be successful. Good communication skills, however, are not only necessary for successful marketing. Employees must be able to communicate with each other and management must be able to communicate with employees. A boss who expects employees to be mind-readers will not be a boss for long. A team whose members cannot communicate their ideas to each other will not be able to achieve the synergy that is the goal of such work groups. The technical expert who cannot communicate a flash of insight will not be able to use it to help the organization. In short, communication is key to success not only on an organizational level, but on a personal level as well.
A study of entry-level job requirements listed in the job advertisements from newspapers in ten large metropolitan areas found that “interpersonal skills” were mentioned most frequently. Even for jobs such as accounting where it would be reasonable to assume that mathematical ability was more important than communication skills, it has been found that up to 80 percent of work time is actually spent in communication rather than in working with numbers. Despite the importance of good communication skills in the workplace, however, research has found that employees often do not possess adequate communication skills for success. As a result, many US companies give communication training to employees in areas such as team building; public speaking and presentation skills; interviewing skills; and business and technical writing.
At its simplest, communication starts when the sender decides to transmit a message to the receiver. They decide what message to communicate and how best to express this message (words, gestures, body language, intonation). This message is then sent to the receiver. This person then decodes the message and forms the appropriate feedback, be it a nod of the head, a smile, or other body language; an action such as doing what the sender requested; or forming another verbal or nonverbal reply to show that the message was understood or not understood. This message is then transmitted to the original sender who, in turn, receives and decodes the response, and forms a return message.
Figure 1: The Communication Process Model (adapted from McShane, S. L. & Von Glinow, M. A.. (2003). Organizational behavior: Emerging realities for the workplace revolution (2nd ed). Boston: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, p. 324)
This is a simple enough process in theory. However, communication is more than the sender transmitting a message and the receiver responding. There are numerous places during the process where barriers to communication can keep the receiver from correctly understanding the message sent in the way that the sender intended it. When this happens, miscommunication can occur. There are a number of different types of barriers to communication that can lead to miscommunication by hindering the unambiguous transmission and reception of a message between parties trying to communicate. Communication barriers include different perceptions of a situation, filtering, language, jargon, and ambiguity. Other sources of miscommunication include the degree to which the vocabulary (professional, technical, or general) of the two persons is shared, differences in their assumptions and expectations, and their relative skill at forming and decoding messages.
For example, Harvey may wish to tell George that the budget report that he had turned in was acceptable. So, Harvey forms a message: “Good job.” However, George may consider the budget report to have been his best work to date or a significant improvement over his previous attempts, and is looking for more effusive praise. The terse “good job” may not carry with it sufficient information to supply George with the feedback he is seeking. As a result, George may think that Harvey did not appreciate his work or that Harvey did not think that George had done an outstanding job. Therefore, even though Harvey may have been trying to praise George, the message that George receives is that the work was neither extraordinary nor noteworthy. Such a situation can result in resentment or discouragement and may damage the relationship between the two co-workers.
Everyone comes to a situation with their own unique perspective, including assumptions and expectations. This perspective helps determine how an individual will react to what the other person says or does. For example, in the illustration of Harvey and George above, if George has entered the situation with the perception that Harvey is less than pleased with his previous work, then the off-hand “good work” could make him doubt his competence in other areas or lower his self-esteem. On the other hand, if his perception is that Harvey is pleased with his work in general, then the off-hand “good work” could be a confirmation even if Harvey was condemning the report with faint praise. On a small scale, this could cause needless friction in the workplace. However, if the miscommunication is between George and a customer, it could potentially lead to lost contracts or hours spent focusing on the wrong thing because an off-hand remark was misunderstood.
Different perceptions, however, are not the only reason for miscommunication in the workplace. Because the nature of workplace communication is often more formal than social, communications are often filtered to remove unwanted messages. For example, the culture in some organizations rewards good news but punishes bad news. In such cases, employees may tell only the good news (“we can put on a demonstration for the customer next week”) but filters out the bad news (“but only if we get needed input from a vendor on time”). Similarly, when delivering performance feedback, supervisors may try to phrase negative feedback in a positive manner in the hope that it will be encouraging (“you may want to try to make your reports a little longer in the future”) rather than giving the employee the entire message (“this report had none of the needed information in it and is totally unacceptable”). In the first example, if the needed input does not come from the vendor, not only does the employee look bad for not having delivered what was promised, but the supervisor looks bad to the customer or executives because the needed demonstration was a failure. In the second example, the employee’s feelings were not hurt in the short-term. However, in the long-term, they may be left confused and bitter because raises, promotions, or other rewards that were reasonably expected on the basis of a perceived positive performance appraisal did not materialize.
To communicate effectively, both parties need to speak the same language and use words that clearly say what is meant. This does not just mean the difference between English and German, but the words chosen within the same language. One such language barrier is the use of jargon. This is any technical language, acronyms, specialized language, or other words or phrases that are unique—or uniquely interpreted—to a given group or organization but that are not in wide acceptance outside of that group. For example, the following message might not make sense to many people:
I’ve kluged a POC for the demo next week, but I need to stay down in the weeds so you’ll have to pretty it up for the big boys.
However, to an engineer, it means that the sender has pulled together (“kluged”) a proof-of-concept (“POC”) to demonstrate that a theory will work. However, the sender of the message needs to work on other details (“stay down in the weeds”) so the receiver will have to fine-tune it so that it looks viable (“pretty it up”) when shown to the company executives (“big boys”). Although such short hand may enable communication between parties who both understand the jargon, it prevents communication when one or more parties do not.
Similarly, text messaging and other byproducts of today’s high tech society have brought with them a language all their own. For example, the message “c u here @ 445 on 4/5” may mean to meet the sender at 4:45 on the 5th of April at their office. However, unless the organizational culture supports the use of such abbreviations, they are best left for less formal, social occasions. Using established rules of communication and grammar, however, apply not only to the abbreviations one might use in e-mails, but to any written—or oral—communication. A person’s professionalism is judged in part by the way that they express themselves. The inability to write a coherent sentence using the established rules of English can prevent one from advancement within the organization or in one’s career. There are social boundaries to language and its use. What is an acceptable way to speak or write to one’s friend or in a social situation is not necessarily acceptable in a business setting.
Another language barrier to communication regarding the use of language is ambiguity. For example, if Harvey asks George if he would like to redo the report, it could be taken in several ways: a polite response to George’s concern that the report might not be acceptable, but which is assumed George will not do; an option that can be taken at George’s discretion; or a polite way of telling George that the report needs to be redone. If Harvey is merely making a polite response but George interprets it as a mandate to redo the report, much time is wasted. If Harvey is demanding that the report be redone but George interprets it as a polite response not requiring action, the miscommunication can lead to a strained working relationship.
Workplace communication can often be difficult, especially in large, diverse organizations. Each individual comes with their own set of values, assumptions, and communication styles, yet needs to be able to communicate with others who may have an entirely different set of communication rules. Further, the communication pattern that is effective in one work group may actually hamper communication between groups because of differing jargon or other barriers to communication. However, good communication skills are not only necessary but essential to the success of the organization. Fortunately, there are methods to improve communication skills both within the organization and between the organization and other parties so that work gets done more efficiently.
Cross-Cultural & Gender Communications. Culture is defined as the basic shared assumptions, beliefs, norms, and values held consciously or unconsciously by a group of people. In today’s diverse workplaces, cultures often collide, causing miscommunication as a result of differing assumptions or differing ways of expressing oneself. For example, in Japan it is considered important that neither party in a transaction “lose face.” As a result, communication tends to be much more formal and even ritualistic than is usually the case in the West. Telling a Japanese businessperson negative information in a blunt way would be considered a terrible breach of etiquette because it would cause them to lose face. Similarly, a Japanese businessperson would be considerate of the other person’s feelings even when delivering bad news. Therefore, they might say that serious consideration would be given to the other person’s idea but use body language that—to the knowledgeable observer—would indicate just the opposite.
One does not have to travel halfway around the world to encounter different communication styles, however. Even within a culture, men and women frequently (although not universally) have different communication styles. While men, for example, tend to feel comfortable communicating in larger groups, women often prefer one-on-one communication or small group communication. Men also tend to multitask (doing two or more things at once such as looking for or even reading a report while talking), while women tend to make eye contact and focus on only the conversation at hand. Men often jump from topic to topic in their conversations, while many women prefer to talk about one topic at length. Although these may seem like little differences, they can cause significant challenges. For example, a woman in conversation with a man might interpret his multitasking as a lack of concern or that he is not taking her seriously. If differences in communication style are not understood, such misunderstandings can lead to serious problems in the workplace.
To help employees become better communicators and better understand the text and subtext of the communications between people from different cultures, many organizations offer diversity training. This type of training is designed to help employees deal with persons from different cultures more effectively by helping them gain an understanding of the assumptions, values, and communication styles of the people that they may encounter in the workplace. With this understanding, employees are better prepared to be effective communicators in the workplace and both understand the message of others and get their own message across.
Improving Communication. Although good communication can be a complex process with many potential barriers that can distort the message that one is trying to send, it is also a skill that can be learned and improved. In addition to diversity training, many organizations offer training courses that help employees learn how to improve their communication skills with each other as well as with customers and clients in order to improve their effectiveness and the organization’s success. Such skills relate not only to being a better sender of messages, but also to being a better receiver. There are many techniques that can help improve communication. Two of these are active listening—a way to improve one’s skills as a receiver of messages and communication—and the Johari Window—a model used to explain techniques for improving communication effectiveness.
Active listening is an approach to improving communication through techniques to help better decode the message received from the sender, clarify the message, and respond appropriately. To listen actively, one must receive and process all the signals being transmitted by the sender. This includes not only the actual words that are said, but the body language and other nonverbal cues that accompany the verbal message. For example, if Harvey smiles and pats George on the back while telling him that his report shows that he is ready for a promotion, the message is quite different than if Harvey says that same thing with his arms crossed and in a sarcastic tone. Active listening skills include receiving and processing all the signals that the sender receives. This means that the receiver needs to postpone evaluation of what the sender is saying until all the information has been received. To further this process, the receiver should avoid interrupting, postpone evaluating what the sender says until they are finished, and maintain interest. These skills help the receiver obtain sufficient data to accurately decode the message and form appropriate feedback.
After the information has been received, the receiver needs to evaluate the information they have received, organize it, and form an appropriate response. Part of this process includes showing the receiver that they have been understood and that their thoughts and feelings have been taken into account. Such displays of empathy are critical to showing the sender that both verbal and nonverbal cues have been received and understood. In addition, the receiver needs to organize the information that they have received. Human beings tend to process what they hear over three times faster than the average rate of speech. The active listener uses this opportunity to organize the information received into key points rather than becoming distracted while the sender completes transmission of the message. In complicated communications, it can also be helpful to summarize this information when the sender is finished to make sure that both parties understand the message in the same way. Similarly, active listeners take the opportunity to clarify any ambiguity in the transmission to avoid misunderstandings.
In most communication, each party is both a sender and receiver and each needs to be aware of the potential barriers to communication and how these can be avoided. One approach to helping people improve their communication through mutual understanding is called the Johari Window. In this model, it is posited that true communication occurs in the “arena”; that area where both the sender and receiver strive for open, honest communication. This area can be increased through disclosure and feedback. Disclosure in the workplace would include making sure that all parties to the communication understand the assumptions and preconceptions of each other. For example, when trying to communicate on a technical matter, it is helpful to know at what level to talk to the other person. Two engineers talking to each other, for example, would share many assumptions and knowledge in common, so could use professional jargon and talk at a higher level than if one person did not have a technical background. Disclosure can also apply to other areas in the person’s life, too.
Feedback is when one party gives the other party information about how the communication is received. As in active listening, this could include information about how well the message was received by paraphrasing or summarizing it to make sure that it was correctly received. Feedback could also include information about the nonverbal portion of the communication: “When you say that in that way, I am not sure if you are kidding or not.” Such comments—when considerately and empathetically expressed—can help both parties better understand both the text and subtext of the conversation.
Figure 2: The Johari Window (based on Hall, J. (1973, Spr). Communication revisited, California Management Review, 15, 56-57.)
When disclosure and feedback are not used to increase the openness of communication, miscommunication is more likely to arise. Sometimes this is intentional: the hidden area or façade that everyone uses from time to time to keep the communication on a profession level by not revealing likes and dislikes, personal experiences, or other attitudes that are not appropriate or relevant to the situation. Increasing the area of the arena through feedback also improves communication effectiveness by helping the person understand things that they do not know about themselves (Harvey frequently says “um” while giving a presentation, which is distracting to the listener). The combination of disclosure and feedback can also help the person discover more of their hidden potential; that unknown area that neither party understands in isolation.
Information and Communication Technologies. Much face-to-face interaction has given way to technology-based modes of communication, both in everyday life and in the workplace. The office memo has been almost entirely replaced by email or other online platforms, and employees can access forms and policy statements from the company website or intranet rather than encounter someone from human resources. Internal “ticketing” systems allow queries to find those best able to respond without the query poster having to personally track down the right parties. Video conference calling allows employees to meet regardless of physical location. Such systems create great advantages in speed and ease of communication, often driving innovative forms of collaboration. They can also help minimize certain barriers to communication, perhaps most notably by often removing the subtleties of nonverbal cues that may be misinterpreted. However, this cuts both ways, as the lack of such cues may also lead to miscommunication in some cases. Ultimately, like any form of communication, technologically driven communication requires close attention to many factors in order to ensure clarity and effectiveness.
Online communications also typically provide documentation of conversations, which is more reliable than memory or notetaking. Such documentation, however, has also been problematic for employees who regard their conversations as private and do not practice discretion. Companies in litigation may have their email records subpoenaed.
Social media is a specific area that holds considerable benefits and risks for businesses. A strong social network has been shown to improve employee performance in that a worker who is able to seek timely advice from colleagues will benefit from a broad knowledge pool. One’s reputation within such a network motivates a worker to defend perceptions of their competence, and feedback stimulates innovative problem solving. These dynamics have transferred to online social networking. However, the generally informal nature of social media use in private life does not necessarily translate well to the workplace. Many social media users engage with shorthand, slang, or other language that may be difficult for others to understand. While this may be fine for communicating with direct team members, it will likely be far less effective in presenting a formal report to executives. Some business experts and sociologists have raised concerns that the proliferation of social media, text messaging, and other typically informal systems of communication can hinder people’s development of more traditional communications skills. This can also potentially make inter-generational communication more difficult, as those accustomed to the latest technology may become disconnected from colleagues who rely on older methods of communication.
Terms & Concepts
Active Listening: An approach to improving communication in which the receiver of the message attempts to better understand the message being transmitted, formulates a response based on this understanding, and responds in a way that clarifies the message.
Body Language: The communication of thoughts or feelings through physical expression such as posture, gesture, facial expression, or other movements. Body language may reinforce or contradict the verbal message being given by the person.
Communication Barriers: Anything that hinders the unambiguous transmission and reception of a message between two persons trying to communicate. Communication barriers include different perceptions of a situation, filtering, language, jargon, and ambiguity.
Culture: The basic shared assumptions, beliefs, norms, and values held by a group of people. These may be either consciously or unconsciously held.
Diversity Training: A training program designed to help employees to deal with persons from a different culture more effectively through an understanding of their values, assumptions, and communication styles. Diversity training can be used to help employees preparing to work with a different culture or for employees within a culturally diverse workplace to better understand each other.
Feedback: Information a person receives about his/her behavior or its consequences.
Filtering: The process of eliminating or reducing the amount of certain types of information (negative or emotionally-charged information) from a communication.
Jargon: Technical language, acronyms, specialized language, or other words or phrases that are unique—or uniquely interpreted—to a given group or organization that are not in wide acceptance outside that group.
Johari Window: A model of interpersonal communication that encourages the use of disclosure and feedback to decrease communication barriers and increase open communication.
Nonverbal Communication: Communication that does not use words (is not written or spoken). Nonverbal communication includes gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, body language, posture, dress, and spatial distance from the other person.
Organizational Culture: The set of basic shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that affect the way employees act within an organization.
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Essay by Ruth A. Wienclaw, Ph.D.
Dr. Wienclaw holds a Doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology with a specialization in organization development from the University of Memphis. She is the owner of a small business that works with organizations in both the public and private sectors, consulting on matters of strategic planning, training, and human/systems integration.
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