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5 Ways to Cultivate Candor and Foster Speaking Up in Cross-Cultural Settings

“My biggest worry revolves around leading cultural and behavioral change in societies that have typically been more hierarchical in nature…” — Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup Latin America

Cultural diversity has been shown to be a driver of innovation. 

But “speaking up” takes on a variety of connotations and forms across different cultures. Hence it takes intentionality and awareness to cultivate an inclusive environment for individuals from different cultures to freely contribute and openly interact. 

In Western culture, “speaking up” may mean being vocal and assertive in sharing own perspectives in groups. But in cultures where the notion of hierarchy is more defined and ingrained, “speaking up” to superiors in group settings may be deemed to be disrespectful or a breach of social norms. Particularly, children are taught in some cultures to remain silent in the presence of authority figures, and speak only when spoken to. Hence when called to interact with seniors in less hierarchical cultures, those who grew up in deferential cultures may be called to step outside their “cultural comfort zones” (some academics called it “liability of deference”).

What organizations (and leaders) can do… 

1. Be aware of differences in cultural assumptions and undertones

The first step is to observe and educate ourselves about these differences. Keep an open mind, slow down and ask questions. Be emphatic and learn to step into the shoes of those from other cultures in understanding these differences.

2. Be clear about the objectives and clarify the meaning of “speaking up”

Focus on the objectives. If the key objective is to create a collaborative environment for employees to freely contribute their ideas, then there are many ways  to achieve the same goal.  “Speaking up” may take many forms including verbal or written feedback, one-on-one meetings to small group discussions, in-person or online forums. For example, in Asian culture, employees may prefer to speak with superiors in one-on-one in private settings or find other channels of communication to share their opinions. Hence “speaking up” does not solely confine to providing direct verbal input to senior management in a group setting.

3. Provide lead time

Spontaneous response may be very intimidating for non-native speakers and also for more reserved cultures. Imagine that you need to communicate in your non-native tongue, your thought process may involve first translating conversations back into your native tongue to process the information, then constructing a response, and finally translating it back into English. Providing some lead time may be helpful for a diverse group composed of individuals from multiple cultural origins and different native languages.

4. Be explicit about expectations

Be clear by when, from whom, and how you would like to receive feedback. For example, “I need to hear back from everyone before tomorrow 5 pm. You can either offer your input at our meeting tomorrow, by talking with me one-on-one, or by sending me an email. The feedback does not need to be complete — I just want to hear your initial ideas and it’s ok if they are half-baked.”

5. Create a “safe space” without retribution

Leaders are often called to create a “safe space” where anyone can raise issues without consequences. But research has shown that leaders often undermine their own efforts. Studies have found that leaders often react negatively to employees who challenge them even in a constructive manner. Hence for managers to avoid these pitfalls, it may be helpful to tune in and regulate emotions especially when feeling threatened by something an employee says. Try to reframe the employee’s comment in a direct and constructive way. Identify and continuously reinforce a shared group goal. Use humor to diffuse a potentially charged situation. Provide a balanced perspective; and state viewpoints objectively. In the end, it requires emotional and cultural intelligence to cultivate an open dialogue across cultures.

Regardless of your role in an organization, the key is that everyone has a part to play in increasing candor and ensuring the proper flow of communication. Cross-cultural differences add an additional layer of complexity and sensitivity. With awareness and open-mindedness, a diverse and inclusive workplace could drive growth and innovation, leading to more learning opportunities as we interact with others from different cultural backgrounds and countries of origins.

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