Today’s global marketplace teaches us that effective practices for internal communication in international corporations must be tuned to the cultural profiles of employees in their own countries. Internal communication departments are given the task of adapting company messages that effectively reach the organization’s global employee base. In order to ensure the effectiveness of these communications, organizations must first develop awareness, knowledge and intercultural skills within their internal communication teams.
The internal communication function
According to author Phillip Clampitt, across the world the function of internal communication departments is very similar: to help employees understand the organization’s vision, mission, values and culture; to open lines of communication between management and employees; and to forge a sense of community. But how members of an organization (including internal communicators) code messages and how other employees perceive, give meaning and respond to those same messages, is culturally bound.
The underlying logic for any given piece of communication varies widely from country to country. U.S. communication practices and related management and team building theories, for example, are less effective when blindly applied to other cultures. Global organizations that are best able to reconcile and leverage cultural differences will acquire noticeable advantages in the marketplace if they keep this rule in mind. Here are some key strategies for adapting and improving the effectiveness of your organization’s communication with culturally diverse employees and teams.
In the U.S., for example, the definition of good internal communication is that which is transparent, timely, clear, concise, factual and available to all employees, who will in turn seek and use that information to perform their jobs. In other parts of the world, such as Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, good internal communication is relationship-oriented. Employees appreciate face-to-face contact and treasure loyalty, respect of hierarchy, and conflict avoidance. In these regions, effective managers and leaders need to be attentive to the needs of their employees, who see the organization as a “family,” and they need to make an extra effort to ensure that employees are well informed. Sending messages to employees in these regions goes beyond language translation: Internal communication departments in global organizations need to be aware that translated messages are prone to misinterpretation.
For example, U.S. organizations like to celebrate and display company achievements in a powerful “We Are the Champions” fashion. This focus inspires U.S. employees to keep working hard and stay committed to the company goals. However, in Nordic countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, this approach would be perceived as boastful. This does not mean that Nordic cultures don’t like to win, they simply celebrate differently. For them, a modest display of achievements, simply communicated as facts, is valued more and truly motivates employees.
Adapting vehicles for communication
Internal communication departments must also adapt their communication vehicles when addressing messages across different cultures. Today, most companies around the world rely on e-mail as a tool for communication, but the way messages are conveyed in e-mail also varies by culture. In the U.S. and most European countries, e-mails should be clear, concise and to-the-point. These direct communication countries communicate their messages in very few words.
A similar approach to e-mailing in most Latin American, African, Asian and Middle Eastern countries could easily create a lot of confusion and anxiety. People in these countries value a more indirect and relationship-oriented communication approach. A short, concise e-mail can be easily misinterpreted as indicating that the sender is upset and/or distant. Its message can be interpreted in many possible ways due to a lack of additional context. In these countries, every communication (via e-mail, phone or face-to-face), besides exchanging information, is a critical element in reassuring both parties that their relationship is on good terms.
The increased reliance on e-mail communication at the expense of phone and face-to-face communication requires that internal communication departments create awareness in all employees of such differences. A good way to improve these skills would be to recommend that communicators add a short paragraph in which they ask about how the receiving party is doing, the weather, or add any other friendly comment that serves as an introduction to the main points to be communicated.
A simple way to develop cross-cultural awareness in your internal communication department is to transform it from a monocultural, headquarters-based team into a cross-cultural internal communication council comprised of key managers from the organization’s key regions. A multicultural team will produce a more effective approach to internal communication practices for multicultural organizations; they will be effective in translating the message by meaning, as opposed to translating it by language, for the entire company.
The key to effective cross-cultural internal communication is to develop cross-cultural competence within the internal communication department, to make the team aware of the effect of culture on their work and to ultimately develop knowledge and skills designed specifically for an internal multicultural communication team. Such a team will be better equipped to design strategies and to select and adapt the communication vehicles and tools for effective cross-cultural communication. In this way, internal communication departments can become the driver for harnessing the power of cultural synergy within a global corporation.