12 Dimensions of Culture, #10
Communication is the tenth of the 12 Dimensions of Culture that KnowledgeWorkx uses to map out the intercultural terrain. If you haven't already, you should read our article introducing the 12 Dimensions.
The importance of recognizing direct and indirect communication styles for performance management, customer service, and corporate branding.
Have you ever been stunned by the bluntness of a colleague who attacks you directly and personally during your performance review? Or blindsided by a colleague who told vague stories, but never clearly expressed what later turned out to be major problems with your work? There is a good chance you’ve fallen prey to the impact of direct and indirect communication styles.
In an indirect communication environment the message is typically delivered through a third person approach, either literally via another person, or in a third-person “style” through a story or parable. You would say to somebody, "You know, I heard my friend tell this story once. . . " and then share a story that subtly reprimands the person you had an issue with, telling them that this particular story is exactly what they did, and that need to get your act together. This is a very common way of communicating in most of the world; from Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, to the Mediterranean Basin, indirect communication is probably the more common style across the world.
The highest good is not so much the focus on ‘saying what I mean and meaning what I say’ but on keeping the honor of the other person intact while delivering the message. People in this environment will find ways to say no, but subtly and often without using the word “no” or some equivalent, which means that direct communicators may not understand the answer that was given even when it was clear to indirect communicators.
In a direct communication environment the message is typically delivered in the first-person without any narrative mechanisms to soften the blow. Consider the following example:
"Steve, I want to talk with you. I don’t think your response yesterday was appropriate. Ellis would be much happier if you simply apologized for being late rather than making excuses. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but these sorts of things add up, so I’d rather get them out in the open now, so that later if we have to deal with a bigger problem we’ve got the relational capital built up to deal with it."
In the eyes of people who have adopted an indirect style of communicating, this might come across as confrontational and inconsiderate.
Communication’s Effect on Performance Management
Direct and Indirect communication styles have a huge impact on things like performance management, because working in a communication environment that you are not used to so is extremely difficult. One of the phrases often used in a guilt-innocence, community accountability, and direct-communication environment is, "Well, this is not about you, this is about something you did." But that distinction is much harder to make in a community-accountability culture for people who are more honor-shame or more power-fear oriented, in which the message style, “Lets talk about what you did yesterday: that was totally unacceptable” would be incredibly rude because one does not separate who one is from what one does. They are one and the same: "I am what I do."
Communication is not about the message that is sent, but the message that is received: so you need to ensure that your staff understands the performance management messages that you send in ways that can improve their performance. You need to know where your performance management system stands on the Communication dimension, and where each individual staff member stands, so that you can identify areas of miscommunication and ensure that what you mean to say is what people hear. This is especially important for direct-communication styles, where people with indirect-communication styles will often understand far more than what you meant to say, because a large portion of the message is always assumed to be implicit rather then explicit. Therefore, they will read much more into the message that you send them than you intended. In a performance evaluation setting this can lead to high stress, lower job satisfaction, lower performance and higher turnover, all as a result of misunderstandings.
Likewise, people with a direct-communication style expect little or no implicit information in the message, so they will often read much less into the message than the indirect-communicator intended. In a performance-management environment, this can lead to a lack of change when negative evaluations are not recognized, leading to frustration on the part of the employer and, in the end, termination, all because the direct-communicator did not understand the negative feedback he or she was being given and thus had no opportunity to change his or her behavior.
Customer Service and Corporate Branding
In Customer Service, direct and indirect communication styles shows up especially when dealing with customers that have had a negative experience. The customer might expect a more indirect communication approach, and the direct communication customer service person might not appreciate that approach at all, and might even alienate the client even more.
In Corporate Branding, when a product that goes funny or has a side-effect that was not anticipated, there might be a tendency not to address it at all in indirect communication cultures, whereas in direct-communication cultures it might be expected to transparently communicate about the problem, because otherwise the credibility of the company is at stake.
There are many ways in which this dimension shows up, and it's important to recognize messaging that requires indirect and direct communication styles. For example, read more about how to derive increased business value from listening styles.
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