Cultural Barriers to Internal Communication


Twenty years ago, I sat in the London offices of an American oil services company taking the conference brief for a CEO’s script. He was an oilman of the old school—no nonsense and pretty brutal in his management style. When his personal assistant came in with the coffee, she all but threw it over the guy and left the room with her nose in the air. “The natives are revolting,” he explained. “I made some redundancies this morning: everyone who arrived more than five minutes late.”

It was my first experience of culture shock. For the Texan, it was the most natural behavior; for the Brits, he represented a form of barbarism not seen since the Dark Ages.

Fons Trompenaars, a man who has dedicated his life to studying cultural differences, likens culture to gravity. It’s something that’s always there, but you don’t notice it until you fall over.

So how does a multinational firm communicate to audiences who have fundamentally different cultural values? And I am not talking about those superficial surface symbols such as white being the color of mourning in some cultures. Those are differences that can be easily grasped and applied. I mean those deep-down beliefs—what author and cultural scholar Geert Hofstede describes as the values you learn in the first 12 years of life at home and school, rather than the practices that you acquire later at college and work. These values are potent (and challenging for the communicator) because they are hidden and deeply buried in the psyche—so deeply that they are rarely discussed.

Trompenaars makes the crucial point that it is more important to understand the effect our beliefs have on others, than to try to decode their beliefs. Only then can we temper that effect in order to achieve the ends we are after. To make yourself understood, you have to first understand the fundamental gaps between cultures.

In his seminal book, Riding the Waves of Cultural Diversity, Trompenaars identifies four types of cultures in organizations:

  • Guided Missile
  • Eiffel Tower
  • Familial
  • Incubator

Guided Missile culture
This describes the company that is “managed by objectives.” These cultures are strongest in the U.S., the U.K. and the Netherlands.

In Guided Missile cultures, the objectives of a particular project or mission are paramount. Here, staff are focused on initiatives to move the business forward. When managers make decisions, they tend to be guided by targets set for their own project rather than by the views of those working on different projects, no matter how senior.

What’s good about Guided Missile cultures is that managers feel a high degree of ownership and are able to cut through and across departments to get the task done. Results are achieved faster than in other cultures, and there is greater flexibility as people work in smaller teams to complete the job. The downside is that such a culture allows managers to pursue separate agendas, and this makes it difficult to communicate a holistic view of the organization.

How to communicate in a Guided Missile culture

  • Align yourself to key projects.
  • Hold on to the bigger picture.
  • Set measurable and achievable targets for yourself.

Communication programs driven through management-by-objective cultures tend to be tactical, designed to support whatever initiative is top of the agenda. Managers may have little time for companywide communication projects, seeing them as diluting the attention of teams that they would prefer to see focused on particular projects. If you want to get management’s support and a share of their resources, align yourself to the key projects that need to be communicated.

Eiffel Tower cultures
Instead of being target- or project-focused, Eiffel Tower cultures focus on the relationship you have with your boss and your position in the hierarchy.

These cultures are very effective and strong; they are among the most successful organizations in Europe. However, they can be slow to react to change, and this can be a problem when working in areas that require employees to bend the rules in order to get the job done, or where there is a higher degree of ambiguity.

How to communicate in an Eiffel Tower culture
In rigid hierarchies, information is power. The communication professional, therefore, can be blocked by senior management’s desire not to tell staff too much.

To counteract this tendency:

  • Understand and use bottom-up and side-to-side communication channels as well as traditional top-down cascades.
  • Develop both objective and measurable feedback channels.
  • Develop a senior champion for communication at the regional board level.

Because hierarchical cultures are driven from the top, it is essential to get a champion for communication among senior leaders. Look for outside appointments who come from a different culture. These senior executives are more likely to already have been converted to the power of internal communication.

The Familial culture
The Familial culture is widespread in Southern Europe, South America, and much of the Indian subcontinent and the Far East. Here, the corporate culture takes its cues from the family, with its complex interweaving of influence and patronage.

Managers will make decisions in these cultures with reference not just to their line boss but also to the person who has sponsored their career or for whom they have worked in another part of the organization. The culture relies heavily on mutual dependencies and trust.

Because the lines of loyalty are multi-layered, these types of companies can be very flexible: If a key manager leaves, there is a network of “relatives” who can take the strain. These cultures put a great deal of emphasis on honor, reputation and keeping one’s word.

How to communicate in a Familial culture
Familial cultures have deep roots, so although they can appear flexible, they are loathe to cut away from the past. As a professional communicator, you can match this style by:

  • Communicating through example rather than by instruction.
  • Cultivating stories and legends to suit your cause.
  • Using celebrations and events.

Staff and colleagues are influenced not so much by what those in senior management say—as in an Eiffel Tower culture—but by what they do. When senior management promotes and rewards, it can often be in the face of statistical evidence. Where a management-by-objectives culture will reward for attaining clear, concise goals, in a Familial culture, you can get promoted because you are liked, because the organization feels that you fit and could do well in the future.

Internal communication in such cultures can become anodyne and self-serving. Few managers are openly criticized, and information can degrade into mere propaganda. So, rather than coming out with blunt and unwelcome messages, communicators should turn to stories that illustrate the message they want to get across without having to state the bald facts.

Incubator cultures
Incubator cultures are named after the incubator companies in Silicon Valley that developed with the rise of IT and the dot com boom. Incubator describes a culture where the idea is king and where people come to work to fulfill themselves.

IT providers such as Microsoft and Apple, and broadcasters such as the BBC, are full of individuals who get out of bed in the morning to follow an idea rather than a paycheck. While these can be very exciting environments in which to work, for the communication manager, the job of internal communication is like herding cats. This is because everyone thinks they are experts in communication when they are probably only good at communicating what is of interest to them.

Communicating in an Incubator culture

  • Cultivate the authentic voice.
  • Use experiential techniques.

In Incubator cultures, the majority of employees are generation X and Y. They use hyperlinks to undermine hierarchies—which means that anyone can find out the information they need without having to go up through the information chain to get it, and top-down communication is often ignored. Incubator cultures leak like a sieve and external commentators and message boards have as much, or more, authority than your internal channels.

It is therefore essential to avoid air-brushing or obfuscation in any of your media channels. Tell it like it is or, if you can’t, then say nothing.

If your people spend most of their lives on the Internet or intranet, then get them to come to a live event where they have to leave their terminals behind. Use strong visual imagery, tastes, smells and sounds to reinforce your key messages. Don’t depend on e-mail. Use storytelling, interactivity, viral videos—anything that engages the senses that are not being used for most of your people’s working hours.

As in all cross-cultural communication, start by working out your own personal culture and that of your company. Only then can you adjust the more extreme aspects of the way you communicate and avoid having your own cultural characteristics get in the way of the message.