Cultural barriers to internal communications

3 July, 2007 - 17:19
Fons Trompenaars, a man who has dedicated his life to studying cultural differences likens culture to gravity. It’s something always there but you don’t notice it until you fall over.

by Marc Wright

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 PA 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 5 minutes late.”

It was my first experience of culture shock. For the Texan it was the most natural behaviour; 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 always there but you don’t notice it until you fall over.

Take for instance the difference between western and eastern attitudes to ‘Range of Involvement’. This is the extent to which your business and personal life is inter-related. In the West just because someone is your boss in the office doesn’t mean that you would naturally defer to them on matters such as their taste in movies, wine or their opinion on sport. In China however, a boss’s influence extends far beyond the workplace. When faced with the question “Would you give up your weekend to paint your boss’s house to curry favour” 88% of Brits refused – but only 32% of Chinese said no; the majority saw it as an opportunity to advance their careers.

So how does a multinational firm communicate to audiences who have fundamentally different values? And here I am not talking about those superficial surface symbols that mark cultures apart such as white being the colour of mourning, for instance, in some cultures – worth noting if you’re invited to a Buddhist wedding. But these are differences that can be easily grasped and applied. No I mean those deep-down beliefs – what 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. But if like our Texan oilman you cross the line and upset them the reaction can be severe.

Trompenaars makes the crucial point that it is more important to understand the effect our fundamental beliefs have on those from a foreign culture, rather than trying to decode theirs. Only then can we temper that effect in order to achieve the ends we are after. To make oneself understood, you have to first understand the fundamental gaps between different cultures.

In his seminal book 'Riding the Waves of Cultural Diversity' written in association with Charles Hampden-Turner, Trompenaars identifies four types of cultural diversity among corporate cultures:

  • Guided Missile
  • Eiffel Tower
  • Familial
  • Incubator

Guided Missile culture

This describes the company that is ‘managed by objectives’. These cultures are strongest in the US, the UK and The Netherlands.

‘Guided Missile’ cultures are where the objectives of a particular project or mission are paramount. Here, staff are rewarded and focused on initiatives to move the business forward. When managers make decisions they will tend to be guided by targets set for their 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 faster than in other cultures and there is greater flexibility as people work in smaller, sometimes virtual, teams to get the job completed.

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 organisation. Also such cultures, being target driven, can create high levels of stress and over-working in staff who strive to achieve the various objectives and key performance indicators they have been set. So whereas someone in Rotterdam might be quite comfortable working within a matrix management structure guided by a balanced scorecard, his counterpart in Paris might find it strange to be reporting to more than one boss, while a colleague in Milan might resist a target culture, preferring to work through an informal networks of sponsors.

How to communicate in a Guided Missile culture

  • Align yourself to key projects
  • But hold onto the bigger picture
  • Set yourself measurable and achievable targets.

Communication programmes driven through management by objective cultures tend to become quite tactical, being designed to support whatever initiative is top of the agenda. Managers may have little time for communication projects that are company-wide as they will see them diluting the attention of teams that they would prefer to stay focussed. If you want to get their support and a share of their resources, then align yourself to the key projects which need communicating. Concentrate, for example, on a new sales incentive plan, on health and safety issues or on a share-save scheme, which needs to attract the attention of large numbers of staff to be successful. If you spend your time communicating projects that are not seen to be important to the business, then you and your department will lose credibility.

However, one of the challenges of the guided missile culture is that a company can easily lose sight of the bigger picture amidst the complex reporting lines of matrix management. There is a real opportunity for communication managers to work with the CEO to communicate the ‘Big Picture’, which shows where all the initiatives are heading. What binds the targets together? Where do all the initiatives fit? And liaise with your HR department to see if you can bring alive your organisation’s balanced scorecard by making all those targets available on-line so people can see how the success of their projects add to the company’s overall mission and performance.

Eiffel Tower cultures

Strict hierarchies are called Eiffel Tower cultures by Trompenaars because they are tall and inflexible and are found mainly in France – although German companies can share many of these multi-layered characteristics. Instead of being target or project focussed, here it’s the relationship you have with your boss and your position in the hierarchy that drives management behaviours.

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

In 1990 Volvo and Renault announced the first steps to a merger of the two car companies. But collaboration on the project failed since the Swedish engineers would send their most senior people to get the job done. The French management tended to delegate to their staff knowing that they would look after their French bosses’ interests. What tended to happen was that the French players felt out-ranked by their Swedish counterparts and deferred to them rather than collaborating as equals. Three years later the merger deal was abandoned.

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. This is why centrally-produced briefings emanating from the US get filtered out by French and German line managers.

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 communications at regional board level.

The Eiffel Tower model encourages communication in a top-down cascade model. By developing your feedback channels, you can beat the hierarchy at its own game. When feedback is objective and can be measured, it becomes a very effective tool for changing management behaviours. Imagine if your managers were giving messages directly to customers: the manager who alienated customers through poor or misleading communication would not stay long in the hierarchy as soon as sales began to suffer. What is measured dictates what gets done so, by measuring feedback rather than stifling it, you can use information to permanently improve the quality of internal communication.

Because hierarchical cultures are driven from the top, it is essential to get a senior champion for communication. 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.

Cultivate these champions and ask them for advice and mentoring. Then use examples from their part of the business to influence executives who are poor or unwilling communicators;. The best champion is always the CEO so you need to develop their support.

The Familial Culture

The ‘Familial’ culture is very widespread in Southern Europe, South America and much of the Indian sub-continent 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 organisation. The culture relies heavily on mutual dependencies and trust.

Because the lines of loyalty are multi-layered, these types of company 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 honour, on keeping one’s word and on reputation.

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 senior management say – as in an Eiffel Tower culture – but by what they do. When senior management promote and reward, 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 organisation feels that you fit and could do well in the future.

Loyalty from the bottom-up is often rewarded more than performance. Disloyalty to anyone is frowned upon. This gives rise to the archetypal ‘saving of face’ that is so remarkable to Westerners when they visit Far Eastern corporate cultures.

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

Stories have a strong potency in such cultures, and can be used to develop a tipping point to encourage buy-in to new ideas. You can also exploit the culture’s love of celebrations and special events to create significant moments that can accelerate change in your organisation. Never just fly in and fly out, but create space around meetings and show an interest in colleague’s personal lives.

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. It describes a culture where the idea is king and where people come to work to fulfil themselves. Just look at the early pizza-and-sleeping-bag cultures of Google, where staff were motivated (and still are) by creating ever-better algorithms.

Management consultancies such as Accenture, 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 pay cheque. 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 feels themselves to be an expert in communication; whereas they are probably only good at communicating what is of interest to them.

Communicating in a Incubator culture

  • Cultivate the authentic voice
  • Encourage fanatics
  • Use experiential techniques.

In ‘Incubator’ cultures the majority of employees are generation X and Y. They are 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. In extreme examples ‘incubator’ cultures operate a virtual free market in all forms of communication.

It is therefore essential to avoid air-brushing or obfuscation in any of your media channels. Tell it like it is or, if your can’t, then say nothing. Incubator cultures are full of noise because they trade on ideas. Your task is not to add to the information but to attract attention to the information you want people to focus on.

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. Consider using techniques such as Open Space Technology, which allows staff to drive the agenda at your next management meeting. Use strong visual imagery, tastes, smells and sounds to reinforce your key messages. Don’t depend on e-mail. Use story-telling, 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 your own cultural characteristics from getting in the way of the message.

 ‘Riding the Waves of Culture – Understanding Diversity in Global Business’ Fons Trompenaars and Charles Hampden-Turner.

 ‘Cultures and Organizations’ Geert Hofstede and Gert Jan Hofstede.