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When East Meets West: Leading Cross-Cultural Teams

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Your company is taking its business to the global level by opening an office in Tokyo, Japan. They have placed their trust in you to lead the team and help them succeed like you have done at the headquarters. It's time for you to show your skills on a global stage!

With the apartment, transportation, and everything else being taken care of already, you just need to pack your bags and go.

On your first day with your new team, you prepared a deck with information about yourself, the company, and the goals you will be working towards together. Everyone is politely listening and smiling, but no one jumps in.

This continues on for weeks then months. Where is the lively debate? The engaged conversations that bring forth new ideas?

Instead, it feels like pulling teeth. You want ideas and input from them, but putting them on the spot makes them retreat more, and even when you get an answer, you feel like they are holding back.

In today's interconnected global landscape, workplace teams are becoming increasingly multicultural and diverse. While this diversity brings a wealth of perspectives and talents to the table, it also presents unique challenges when it comes to effective communication. This is where the concept of high and low-context cultures enters the stage, playing a pivotal role in shaping how we interact and exchange information in a professional setting.

In this series of articles, we will explore the multifaceted landscape of cross-cultural communication in the workplace. We will delve into the challenges faced by leaders who navigate high and low-context cultures, uncover practical strategies to overcome these hurdles, and discover the power of fostering an inclusive work environment where cultural diversity thrives. So, join us on this journey as we unlock the secrets to successful communication across cultural boundaries and celebrate the magic that happens when East meets West.

Understanding High and Low-Context Cultures

Glass dome greenhouse during sunrise
We don't know our own culture until we experience another.

Cultures around the world vary in their communication styles, and one important aspect that distinguishes them is the degree of context they rely on. The classification of high and low-context cultures is not a judgement of superiority or inferiority but rather a recognition of different approaches to communication that have evolved over time due to historical, societal, and environmental factors.

High-context cultures have developed in societies where a deep-rooted shared understanding exists among individuals. This understanding is based on common experiences, traditions, and cultural norms that are deeply ingrained in the fabric of society. Examples of high-context cultures include many Asian, Middle Eastern, and African societies.

If you’ve ever been to these areas, you'll see a high level of ethnic homogeneity, the highest being Korea, where more than 99% of the population in Korea is Korean.

On the other hand, low-context cultures have emerged in societies that prioritise direct and explicit communication. These cultures place emphasis on clarity, specificity, and individual autonomy in conveying messages. Many Western cultures, such as those found in North America and Europe, are considered low-context cultures.

In countries where there is a wider range of cultures overlapping, communication is found to be more direct, and you’ll state the obvious more just in case of miscommunication.

The Challenges of High-Context Cultures for Leaders

Colorful tiles domes of yellow, green and blue.
Nuance is difficult when you need to explain the smallest details.

Working with high-context cultures can present unique challenges for leaders in the multicultural workplace. While the richness of these cultures brings valuable perspectives and insights, there are specific difficulties that leaders may encounter when collaborating with individuals from high-context cultures.

One of the primary challenges for leaders is nailing down details. In high-context cultures, information may be conveyed implicitly, leaving room for interpretation and assumptions. This can lead to misunderstandings and a lack of clarity, especially when it comes to specific project requirements, timelines, or deliverables. As a leader, it can be frustrating to navigate through the layers of indirect communication and ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Imagine a scenario where you, as a leader, are tasked with coordinating a project that involves team members from different cultural backgrounds. You provide a general outline of the project and expect the team to fill in the missing details. However, instead of receiving the specific information you need, you receive vague responses and ambiguous suggestions. The challenge lies in deciphering the hidden meanings behind the words and piecing together the puzzle to create a cohesive plan.

Another challenge that leaders may encounter when working with high-context cultures is the lack of contribution in meetings. In some cultures, speaking up and expressing individual opinions openly may not be the norm. Instead, there is a greater emphasis on hierarchy and deference to authority. As a result, team members from high-context cultures may hesitate to voice their ideas or concerns in a group setting, particularly if they perceive a potential conflict or disruption of harmony.

With you in the room, it doesn't matter how much you ask your team to contribute, you won't get the participation you want. For one, looking stupid in front of the manager is too intimidating. Another is that brainstorming and spitballing are not part of the culture. What you see as a suggestion for the team feels like a commitment by the individual, and again, it is too much of a barrier to overcome.

This doesn't even get into the education system, where often there was one right answer rather than being encouraged to come up with your own theories and back it up with good, logical arguments.

These cultural habits have been ingrained in students since they were old enough to think. Their entire lives they have been asked to live and think like that, and now we are asking them to live up to new standards that they have had no practice in and haven't been laid out as expectations.

That is a tall order.

Charting the Way Forward

Construction site at sunset.
Building a solid foundation for effective work.

Navigating high and low-context cultures in a global workplace poses unique challenges for leaders seeking to foster effective communication and create an inclusive work environment. Understanding the communication styles and cultural norms of high-context cultures is crucial for leaders to overcome these hurdles and unlock the potential of diverse teams.

In the upcoming articles, we will delve deeper into the strategies that leaders can employ to bridge the cultural gap and promote open communication. We will explore practical steps that can be taken to address the challenges faced when working with high-context cultures, such as decoding implicit communication, fostering a participatory environment, and addressing the influence of cultural upbringing and education.

By gaining insights into these strategies, leaders will be equipped with the tools necessary to encourage lively debates, engage in meaningful conversations, and harness the collective intelligence of their cross-cultural teams. Join us in the next article as we explore the practical steps that leaders can take to navigate high-context cultures and create a collaborative work environment where ideas flow freely, regardless of cultural backgrounds.


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