Cultural diversity and "speaking up"

Sep 14 2012 by David Livermore Print This Article

Cultural diversity creates one of the best opportunities for innovation but it can also be one of the biggest roadblocks if it isn't handled with cultural intelligence. In many organizations, the Europeans and North Americans dominate meetings while the Asians and Latin Americans remain quiet.

The whole idea of "speaking up" is interpreted differently based upon your cultural background. In many Western organizations, asking people to "speak up" is a very positive thing. It's management's way of saying "Your input is important". But your power distance orientation-the degree to which you prefer a hierarchical vs. an egalitarian leadership style-can make a big difference in whether you view "speaking up" positively.

For example, when a low power distance boss tells a high power distance report to "speak up," the associate hears that as "praise me." So when the boss asks, "What do you think about this idea?", the associate says something like, "Oh, it's a most wonderful idea!", regardless of what they truly think.

Or when lower power distance associate "speaks up" to a high power distance boss, the boss may interpret that as disrespectful: Why are they always trying to be in charge?

And among peers the associate who is always "speaking up" is viewed by his high power distance peers as the smart alek in the group: "Ah. Here he goes again. He always has to voice his opinion. The nail that stands up is the one the hammer smacks down."

There are a few things leadership can do to help culturally diverse associates "speak up".

1. Clarify what you mean by "speak up". That doesn't mean having lots of people talking all the time. Nor is it just to make everyone "feel" like they're part of the team. It's to gather ideas and innovations from every team member. The leadership truly believes the scientific process will lead to better solutions when diverse voices are heard.

2. Give Advance Warning. If you're an introvert and have high "uncertainty avoidance", providing a spontaneous response can be very intimidating. And for non-native English speakers to "speak up" often means translating the question back into their native language, constructing a response, translating it back into English, and feeling confident about sounding competent. That's a tall order but easier if there's time to anticipate how to respond.

3. Offer multiple ways to "speak up" (verbal, written, group) Since the goal is participation and ideas, not people "talking", provide various ways input can be offered. I've learned this in the classroom. Some students aren't comfortable saying much in a large classroom setting but will provide excellent input in a small group, one-on-one, or in an online forum. This dynamic is accentuated among individuals from certain cultural backgrounds.

4. Be explicit about expectations (eg by Fri at 5 pm). If you expect everyone to provide some response, make that clear. Again—offer multiple ways to provide feedback. You can say something like "I need to hear back from everyone by Friday at 5 p.m. You can either offer your input at our meeting this afternoon, by talking with me one-on-one, or by sending me an email."

An essential part of all of this is for leadership to provide a safe environment where speaking up is rewarded. All these strategies can be used when eliciting feedback from any group of people, but they're particularly relevant for working with culturally diverse groups. That's the beauty of cultural intelligence. It improves the way we lead any group of diverse people. Speak up and let me know what you think!

Join leaders from around the world for the first-ever Cultural Intelligence Summit, January 29-30 in Los Angeles.

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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.

Older Comments

Understanding and working with cultural differences is necessary, but uncomfortable, territory. To meet you counterpart's cultural expectations is to acquire a catalog of useful 'stereotypes', a form of bias that we must employ while guarding against misuse. In this discussion of cultures, one thing that might be overlooked is the role of gender within a culture. My experience is that those cultures that are deemed to be conflict averse may be traditionally male dominated cultures. In our culturally diverse workplace, our understanding of another culture's norms may be based on male behavior, which may not hold true of the women of that culture.

Tom Madden