Communication differences on diverse teams

May 17 2023 by David Livermore Print This Article

Indra Nooyi is a genius communicator. Not only does the former PepsiCo CEO speak with clarity and passion, she adapts her style for many varied audiences. She talks with board members and shareholders using business-oriented, industry-specific language, immediately followed by a conversation with the media using pithy sound bites that exude confidence and integrity, right before meeting with a group of consumers with whom she shares an abundance of personal anecdotes and stories. One second, she's talking about the company's share price and the next, she's telling a story about her grandmother scolding her for wasting water while growing up in India.

Global leaders have to communicate all day long and doing so in a digital, diverse environment requires an ability to move in and out of many communication styles. The communication difference I hear about most often is direct versus indirect communication. It's a constant source of conflict in many diverse teams. But there are some other communication differences that are worth adding to our CQ communication repertoire if we're going to effectively build trust, avoid misunderstanding, and lead everyone effectively.

Communication experts William Gudykunst and Stella Ting-Toomey identify four communication differences that consistently show up in diverse groups:

Succinct versus Elaborate

This communication difference is the degree to which you prefer succinct, brief explanations versus elaborate, descriptive ones. The norm in Confucian cultures is toward a more succinct style because more attention is devoted to the context and the nonverbal cues than to the words. Silence and pauses are a regular tool of succinct communicators. Share only what you deem relevant and necessary for the rest of the group.

An elaborate communication style is more prevalent in Latin Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia. Too much silence may be uncomfortable and can be perceived as disengaged, cold, or lacking confidence. Go into more detail and verbally process ideas.

Contextual versus Personal

Many leaders have replaced exchanging business cards with sending LinkedIn invitations. But this might not work as well with individuals who prefer a more contextual communication style, where a business card provides real-time context about the other individual's organization, role, and level of seniority. A contextual communication style also uses more formal protocols such as carefully greeting people in the "right" order and waiting for more senior people to offer their ideas first when idea sharing.

On the other end of the spectrum is what is called the "personal" style," which pays little attention to formal protocols and instead, uses a consistent, informal style with everyone. Chit chat and friendly conversations are used to establish rapport rather than following norms for passing business cards or greeting people.

I observe this communication difference when I fly an Asian or Middle Eastern airline compared to a North American one. The crew on ANA and Qatar retain a more formal style of interaction with passengers. Although they tend to be more attentive than what you get on United or Delta, you're unlikely to see a flight attendant chatting informally and personally with passengers.

Instrumental versus Affective

Another communication difference identified by Gudykunst and Ting-Toomey has to do with the degree to which the primary objective of communication is transactional, a style described as instrumental versus affective. My daughter Emily is an instrumental communicator. She uses text messages to update me on something or to confirm plans. My daughter Grace is much more affective in her communication. She sends a text message just to share something funny or personal. I'm very close with both of them. But Emily is less likely to respond to a random text from me that has no instrumental purpose.

As you might imagine, instrumental communication is the dominant style used in Western business culture where you email, message, and make a phone call to get work done. Outsiders to the US are often confused by what they experience by many Americans where taking a minute to chat about the weather or weekend plans is common place but then the communication abruptly shifts to the task at hand.

In instrumental cultures like Germany, the norm is to go straight to the task and avoid the upfront chit chat. But for truly affective communicators, much more time is taken to connect on a personal level before talking business. In addition, affective communicators use much more emotion and enthusiasm as they talk about things, even if they're work-related: "I love this new software." Or "That was the worst project of my life."

Direct versus Indirect

Finally, as I mentioned at the start, the communication difference global leaders encounter most is direct versus indirect communicators. This difference needs little explanation. We get it. But I'm amazed how often this communication difference is spoken about pejoratively from people on both ends of the spectrum.

Many direct communicators view indirect team members as lacking confidence. They think indirect communication reflects an inability to clearly articulate one's ideas. However, many indirect communicators view direct team members as being too crass. In their view, direct communicators put too little trust in other people's intelligence to understand what's being said without blunting spelling it out.

These four communication differences show up in different functions and organizational cultures just as much as they do in different international and ethnic cultures. Culturally intelligent leaders are adept at adjusting the way they speak to ensure their words and delivery retain their intended meaning based on how the audience will interpret it.

For additional discussion about these four styles and their links to leading culturally intelligent teams, see Driven by Difference.

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About The Author

David Livermore
David Livermore

David Livermore is a thought leader in cultural intelligence (CQ) and global leadership and the author of "Leading with Cultural Intelligence". He is president and partner at the Cultural Intelligence Center in East Lansing, Michigan and a visiting research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.