In an increasingly globalised world, multicultural environments impact all areas of business; including the workplace. No situation that includes people from different cultures is immune to the frustration and stress that this can cause. Likewise, multicultural settings can be an organisations biggest source of innovation. Management has at least one tool to exploit the potential and avoid the pitfalls: internal communication.
In this short article I will be looking at how these two fields of culture and internal communication relate, as well as some ways in which multinational internal communication can be effective.
Culture: what is it exactly?
Everybody seems to be talking about culture, in almost every context: travel, food, business, politics, global developments, you name it. But what exactly is culture? A useful analogy is the one of the iceberg by Edward Hall. An iceberg only has 10% of its mass above sea level. So too is what you can see of a culture (language, rituals, cuisine, etc.) only a small fraction of the entirety of the culture . If you are a slightly technical person then the definition of culture by renowned researcher Geert Hofstede makes a lot of sense: “culture is defined as the collective mental programming of the human mind which distinguishes one group of people from another.”. This ‘software’ shapes how we interpret everything, from how we view our relationships to how we drink our tea. It’s always on, it’s massive, and it’s everywhere.
Internal and International: match made in heaven, or hell?
Whether we like it or not culture also has a huge impact on how we communicate and understand information in the workplace. The more cultures are involved the more different perceptions and opinions there are. This can make even the simplest task amazingly complicated, but can also bring refreshing creativity.
Over the past four years I have worked in and led quite a number multicultural teams. Some worked out a lot better than others. For the most straightforward briefs and assignments getting a multicultural group on the same page could take weeks. I once led a group of 6 people with a total of 8 national cultures; everyone interpreted each other’s verbal and non-verbal communication completely differently. Because of time restraints we couldn’t get to understand each other fully, and the result ended up far below what it could have been. In these extremely multicultural settings every nuance needs to be addressed and every concept is turned over. This drains patience and often leads to frustration. However, this fresh look at concepts also is where international teams get their strength.
When the ‘box’ is not clearly defined, it is much easier to think outside it.
At L’Oréal they seem to be benefiting from their intercultural capital. The company’s competitive advantage is in its innovative nature, and employees with multicultural backgrounds (mix of nationalities, or extensive time spent abroad) are proving to be the most successful in contributing to innovation. Their understanding of how to navigate the cultural differences in teams and local markets, and their ability to come up with innovative ideas for new products has pushed L‘Oréal ahead of the market. The idea that diversity stimulates creativity is well accepted.
How can a multicultural workplace enjoy the many innovative advantages, while avoiding the frustrating disadvantages? That is where internal communication comes in.
Exploiting the potential, avoiding the pitfalls.
The role of internal communication in an organisation is to: “identify, establish, and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between the organization and the employees on whom its success or failure depends” (Theaker 2012). To be successful in the modern multicultural world, internal communication needs to master the art of intercultural communication through using multicultural communicators, local delegation, and intercultural education.
The L’Oréal case demonstrates the benefit of multicultural managers. Because of their understanding of how people from different backgrounds might interpret information, they are able to save costs by avoiding expensive (or embarrassing) mistakes. Good communication requires good audience understanding. Someone with a deep understanding of culture is ideally suited to communicate to multicultural employees.
Even though multicultural communicators will likely avoid many mistakes and be able to understand differences, local communicators (those from the same culture as their audience) can take this to the next level. When internal communication is delegated locally – with considerable power to create content – communication has much more potential to be relevant, attractive, and sensitive. Companies that will benefit most from local communicators are those that have branches with one predominant culture (different from the national culture at headquarters).
For internal communications to truly bring out the potential a multicultural workplace has, it needs to stimulate cultural understanding organisation wide. Employee satisfaction is hugely determined by colleague relations, and thus by mutual understanding. Intercultural training can reduce employee frustration and increase engagement as colleagues come to grips with each other’s backgrounds. It also allows for an international organisation to unlock its creative potential, while avoiding frustration on all sides.
Internal communication has always been about understanding employees. For internal communication to create engagement in a multinational workplace it needs to get firm understanding of culture, and allow others to do the same.