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Communicating for Diversity

by Kerri Harris

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Effective communication is a manager’s greatest tool in rallying groups toward a common cause. From the annual department address to daily email, careful audience consideration is vital in determining how accurately audiences receive messages. Even the most engaging statements lose meaning when barriers to effective communication foster misconception and confusion.

While many managers typically hold listeners solely responsible for how they receive or interpret information, true leaders are more cognizant about potential communication barriers. As a result, leaders often question their assumptions about the “right” way to communicate and strive to better understand the ways their subordinates interact with one another.

For many years, scholars have studied barriers to effective communication based in simplified terms, putting culture and gender among the greatest inhibitors. While no individual is bound to set generalizations, specific characteristics can impact personal interaction and business objectives.

Through this article we’ll examine:

  • Global Communication Barriers
  • Gender Communication Barriers
  • Tools for Managers to Overcome Barriers

Global Communication Barriers

Managing a diverse workforce spread across the globe presents unique challenges for today’s managers. Time difference and the impact of limited technology to remote locations can contribute to an already difficult communication environment, fueling a potential misstep. Despite these obstacles, managers must be sensitive to various cultural values and traditions associated with the employees they manage.

Rodger Axtell, author of “The Do’s and Taboos of Body Language Around the World,” observes many minor communication generalities that, if ignored, can be considered insulting to your workforce. For example, Japanese culture favors consensus decision-making, taking great effort to engage all members before a decision is reached. Conversely, many Latin American cultures value the hierarchical-based decision-making process as a show of authority. Understanding these perspectives can assist a manager in selecting the best approach when delegating tasks.

Local perceptions concerning project management must be considered when collaborating with teams from various cultures. Many Indian workers tend to believe that the level of importance placed upon a task dictates how follow-up will be received. Projects that receive only email inquires are generally not as critical as those that warrant a phone call. Indian culture also considers “no” be to a harsh refusal and preference is given to more ambiguous responses to invitations. Many Eastern European nations place a higher value on patience and far less on punctuality. Often, they will keep western business partners waiting, but do not openly engage in conflict, as it is deemed rude and a matter best left for private discussion. Many Arabian and Asian cultures place a high value on maintaining dignity through the concept of “save face.” These cultures respect responses of humility and sensitivity, allowing the other to regain equal standing in the wake of conflict or embarrassment.

In many areas where English is not the primary language, certain phrases take on different meanings. For example, a manger following up on a task might say, “Is the report for Project A done,” which would generally receive a positive response regardless of the true situation. This is because the word “done” does not necessarily indicate finality, but rather indicates “in progress.” Even the word “yes” takes on new meaning in various regions. Marcelle DuPraw (National Institute for Dispute Resolution) and Marya Axner (Leadership Development Consultant) found that the meaning of “yes” varies from maybe, I’ll consider it, to definitely so, with many shades in between.”

Gender Communication Barriers

Cultural differences can be daunting enough to overcome without also making allowances for tendencies in gender communication. While there are no absolutes and individual differences in communication types vary across employees groups, general identified trends can assist managers in elevating simple gaps in communication styles.

Robin Lakoff, author of “Language and a Woman’s Place,” studied differences in how boys and girls are taught and reinforced to communicate throughout their early childhood development. Essentially, Lakoff observed that girls are taught to use passive, empathetic voices and are more encouraged toward active listening. Boys, however, are encouraged toward competition, using forceful, active tones.

Reinforced by local society values, these communication styles can be carried into the workplace, where minor conflicts can lead to frustration and animosity. Observe a group of colleagues tasked with solving a problem. Generally, women ask more questions before initiating work, while men typically exhibit tendencies to immediately resolve issues, thus discovering necessary details as the work progresses. Some men may see the inquiry from female coworkers as indecisiveness, while women may assume men already have the understanding needed to complete a project.

Deborah Such, a nonverbal communication and networking coach, explains subtle differences in the ways men and women communicate. She describes a scenario where a man and woman are conversing. It would not be uncommon for the woman to nod continuously while the man is speaking. “To her,” Deborah points out, “she is merely encouraging him to continue speaking; but to him, it is a sign that she agrees with everything he is saying.” This scenario illustrates how slight differences in understanding contribute to misunderstanding. To counter this, one must periodically engage the listener for feedback and comprehension.

Leadership challenges can also arise from the differing approaches that men and women take to vie for control during collaboration and team-building activities. Typically, to establish rapport, women seek to build relationships on a personal level, sharing stories and relating to male colleagues as they would male family members. Men generally prefer to jump to the bottom line, envisioning the final goal at hand. In, “Customize Your Career,” Roz Usheroff explains, “Women tend to be more collaborative in the workplace, putting relationships first while men routinely challenge and expect to be challenged.”

Tools for Managers to Overcome Communication Barriers

The key to bridging communication gaps begins with awareness and understanding. Once identifiable patterns emerge, specific tactics can be used to mitigate conflict and reinforce effective communication. Some of the following tools are familiar, but certainly merit repeating.

  • Use Simplified Language (The K.I.S.S. Principal). An HR director at a large firm was tasked with communicating an improved bonus plan to employees across the globe. Being the consummate professional with lofty accreditations, he carefully drafted a message to convey the good news. Unfortunately, his supercilious language was misunderstood, giving employees the impression that the new plan reduced their bonuses.
  • Use Repetition for a Theme. Think about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr. King used repetition to convey a fundamental principal that continues to resonate with audiences over forty years later.
  • Avoid Using Gender-Specific Metaphors. Typically, men prefer analogies of sports or war to convey emotion into meaning that ultimately may be lost by some female colleagues. Therefore, try to use traditionally gender-neutral examples whenever possible.
  • Employ the Most Effective Technologies Available. Consider whether using the phone will have more impact than an email. Message boards and web-based posting options allow more reserved team members equal opportunity to contribute to discussions. Also, web-based video conferencing or Pod Casts are a cheaper alterative to travel and can facilitate non-verbal communication, greatly contributing to impact and meaning. Select the right communication tool for the right task, and not necessarily the most efficient one best suited to your work habits.
  • Seek Outside Training. Engage consulting experts who specialize in diversity training based on region, nationalities, or gender. Provide a documented policy for employees to review, discuss, and adhere to.
  • Be specific about timelines and due dates for deliverables. Concepts of time vary between cultures. Outline a clear set of deliverables with milestone information so that all stakeholders are aware of your expectations.
  • Establish ground rules for your team to collaborate. Clearly outline what is and is not acceptable. Is everyone expected to contribute? What tools will be used to do so and how are team members permitted to challenge each other? Restate the goals and continue driving the discussion to that goal.

As time becomes increasingly scarce in a deadline-driven world, effective communication can mean the difference behind success or certain disaster. Careful planning can save the time lost through having to restate expectations, correct misinterpreted directions, or stifle interdepartmental squabbles. As a manager, you are responsible for encouraging collaboration based on mutual respect and understanding. As a leader, you can facilitate that climate through a careful evaluation of your own communication style, making calculated adjustments when needed with the sole purpose of achieving your goals.


Kerri Harris is an Interactive Communications Specialist and key member of the Public Relations department at NCR Corporation in Dayton, Ohio. In that role, she is responsible for delivering corporate communications across various electronic and digital media, project management, and customer service. Kerri also coordinates and conducts training programs to improve client services, conflict resolution, and process-improvement techniques. Kerri has completed studies in Phi Theta Kappa’s Leadership Development with Ohio Senator Tom Roberts, and has served as Communication Chair of the Professional Resource Council. Currently, she also serves as Chair for NCR’s Intranet Council.

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