Effective interpersonal communications in a multi-cultural work environment

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2003 21 Pages

Leadership and Human Resource Management - Miscellaneous




Cultural differences

The Johari window model

The importance of cultural roots

The importance of learning styles

Motivational factors in interpersonal relations

How to communicate more effectively




As the world is more and more becoming a ‘global village’, meaning that goods, people and ideas move more easily and frequently between places, it has become of great importance for successful businesses in the international arena to employ a range of staff that are able to communicate effectively with people from different national and cultural backgrounds. It has been said that ‘effective communication is the hallmark of dynamic, productive leadership’ (Fisher, 2002). Furthermore, a dynamic leader is one who not only takes responsibility for what he or she says, but for how it is heard and experienced by others. By definition, communication is the exchange of thoughts, messages or information. More importantly however, our oral communications are revelations of who or where we are in any given moment, whether directly or indirectly expressed. An effective communicator is described to be a person ‘who has the ability to detect and use such revelations to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome’ (ibid.) for all parties involved.

In the following, this essay aims to establish what steps an individual can take to become a more effective communicator with a range of people from different countries. Firstly, we will be looking at the meta-dimension of culture, where people’s different behaviours, values and worldviews are formed to better understand sources for potential conflict between different cultures. Then, we move on to the interpersonal dimension of communication by introducing the Johari window model, which illustrates relationships in terms of awareness. Following from this, we will be looking at individual’s different learning styles and motivational factors which have an influence on interpersonal work relations. Subsequently, more concrete advice for effective communication, such as how to behave assertively in negotiations, is given.

Cultural differences

Recognising cultural differences is an important first step to anticipating potential threats as well as opportunities in personal and business encounters. Having what Schneider and Barsoux (2003: 200) call a ‘global mindset’ requires broad scanning, peripheral vision, and keeping in mind that multiple interpretations are likely. This represents a ‘way of thinking’- being ‘open-minded’ rather than dogmatic and insisting on ‘one best way – my way’, or overly relying on stereotypes. It also means being able to see both ways, my way and your way (ibid. 200). This is what Trompenaars (1997: 195) has termed ‘cultural competence’, which includes both awareness of and respect for different states of mind.

The term enculturation is used to describe the process of learning about our own culture and how to behave in a certain cultural setting[1] . Another term used synonymously is socialisation (Samovar and Porter, 2001: 35). Whichever word is used, both describe the process of learning about the culture we grow up in that shapes our behaviour and perceptions in a more or less prominent way. Culture, has thus been defined as ‘the collective programming of the mind which distinguishes one human group from another’ (Hofstede quoted in Kennedy, 1998: 23), or ‘the way in which a group of people solves problems’ (Trompenaars in Kennedy, 1998: 23).

Hofstede compares cultural differences between nations on an organisational level. Based on a study he undertook among employees of IBM he has established a system of four cultural dimensions, which affect people’s behaviour, and the culture of a country[2]. Although, Hofstede has been criticised by other scholars on the grounds that he generalises, based on observations from one organisation, IBM, which is an organisation with specific employment criteria and distinct American values, and for not including working class groups (Hannagan, 1998: 242), the four work-related dimensions can be seen as important constructs in understanding cultural differences. They can, for instance, explain why people from a collectivist culture like China prefer to work towards a shared group goal and expect more help from others than people from an individualistic culture like the Anglo-Saxon.

Trompenaars, like Hofstede, believes that much of interpersonal behaviour is culturally determined and that the key to successful intercultural communication lies in the understanding of these cultural differences. He attempts to examine cultural differences in the way we relate to others, in our attitudes to time and in our attitudes to the environment. In terms, of how we relate to others, Trompenaars focuses upon five variables relating to how we use rules, individualism, how public and private we are, the extents to which we show emotion and are achievement oriented[3]. Differences between those variables can have significant influence on interpersonal, cross-cultural communication. It is therefore important for an effective communicator to establish a general awareness of differences by studying cultures, people’s customs and values and different mind sets as well as being prepared to adjust behaviour and expectations accordingly (for a model of how to reconcile individualism and communitarianism in working relationships, e.g., please see Fig.1 in Appendices).

It is important to keep in mind that perceptual and learning processes are leading to attitudes, which are predispositions, shaped through experience, to respond in an anticipated way to an object or situation. This categorisation leads to the formation of stereotypes, which are shortcuts our brain uses to identify situations and categorise people when, for example, presented with a new colleague from another country. Sometimes, our initial reactions and stereotypes of others can ‘provide important signals to help surface cultural differences’ (Schneider and Barsoux, 2003: 18). More often, however, we only hear and see what we expect to hear and see until we have developed some experience with him or her. Therefore, making assumptions about someone based on their group characteristics, for example, is insulting as well as risky as it denies that person his or her individuality. Fisher and Ury, rightly argue that,

We do not assume that our beliefs and habits are dictated by the groups in

which we happen to fit; to imply as much of others is demeaning. Each of us is affected by myriad aspects of our environment and upbringing, our culture and group identity, but in no individually predictable way.

(Fisher and Ury, 1997: 176, their emphasis)

By focusing on the cultural dimension relevant to the situation or issue at hand, rather than specific country norms, ‘avoids the trap of stereotypes, encourages recognition of the individual apart from his or her national culture, and enhances the possibility of creating a shared culture of working together’ (Schneider and Barsoux, 2003: 206).

The Johari window model

In order to raise awareness of ourselves and what Covey (1989) calls, our ‘habits’, we need to observe our self in action ‘by reflecting on patterns of past behaviour and monitoring how we behave in the here-and-now’ (Hayes, 2002: 34). Secondly, we need to be aware of how other people perceive us, how this influences how they behave towards us and hence be open and responsive to feedback from others[4]. It is therefore important that individuals find out more about the ways other people are likely to see themselves, as it is ‘until people have clear self-perceptions [that] they [can] begin personal development’ (Riding and Rayner, 1998: 129)[5].

Here the use of the Johari window model by Joe Luft and Harry Ingham (please see Fig.3) can help to go beyond simple awareness of differences as it illustrates the effects of self-disclosure and feedback in increasing personal and interpersonal awareness. An understanding of the model can help facilitate relationships in either group or one-to-one contexts. The four panes of the window are as follows: the area of free activity or public area, refers to behaviour and motivation known to self and known to others, the blind area, indicates the plane where others can see things in ourselves of which we are unaware, the avoided or hidden area, represents things we know but do not reveal to others[6], and lastly the fourth plane is the area of unknown activity, in which neither the individual nor others are aware of certain behaviours or motives. Yet, we can assume its existence because eventually some of these behaviours and motives surface and influence our decisions and relationships.

In a new group, area one is very small; there is not much free and spontaneous interaction. As the group grows and matures, this expands in size, and this usually means we are freer to be more like ourselves and to perceive others as they really are. Also, the hidden area shrinks as area one grows larger. We find it less necessary to hide or deny things we know or feel. In an atmosphere of growing mutual trust, there is less need for hiding pertinent thoughts or feelings. A large enough area of free activity facilitates working with others as more of the resources and skills in the membership can be applied to the task at hand[7]. Conversely, it can be said that the smaller the open area the poorer the interpersonal communication will be. Nevertheless, sensitivity should be applied which means to appreciate the covert aspects of behaviour in the hidden or unknown areas and respecting the desire of others to keep them so. Additionally, Kelly and McKillop (1996: 450) believe that self-disclosure of personal secrets has its dangers, as giving away your secrets means you give others power over you. On the other hand, it can be argued that they are the secrets that give others power, as they can become a personal prison that uses up great mental energy to maintain.


[1] More specifically, enculturation is as Hoebel and Frost (1976: 58) say, ‘conscious or unconscious conditioning occurring within that process whereby the individual as child and adult, achieves competence in a particular culture’.

[2] He differentiates between “power distance index”, which ‘indicates the emotional distance between an employee and his superior’ (Hofstede, 2001: 27), “uncertainty avoidance index” which shows ‘the level of threat members of a culture experience if they are faced with uncertain or unknown situations’ (ibid. 158, my own translation), “individualism index”, the extent to which a society expects individuals to take care of themselves and their families, and “masculinity index”, which indicates the relative importance of assertiveness, acquisition of money and things, as well as the degree of not caring for the quality of life and for other people, and found that great differences persist on those dimensions between nations on a global level.

[3] Trompenaars distinguishes between universalistic countries, such as the USA and Germany, where rules are applied irrespective of the situation, and more particularistic countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, where personal relationships can be more important in some situations than the rules governing conduct. Furthermore, he found that in some societies such as Japan more emphasis is placed upon age, seniority, status and professional qualifications that is on ascription, whereas in others, like the USA, respect tends to be earned on the basis of job performance, that is on achievement.

[4] An important requirement for personal development is that people should see themselves as others see them and have some understanding of their make-up. They will then be more able to work with others effectively, since they will be able to use their strengths and to moderate their weaknesses. They will also be able to understand others better and to appreciate their strengths.

[5] Cultural learning, as described in Hoecklin (1995), should follow an open-minded, non-judgemental path that leads towards mutual understanding and include (1) making implicit knowledge explicit, (2) negotiation about the desired and acceptable outcome for all parties involved, and (3) agreeing upon an approach, creating new alternatives or blending approaches to fit all cultures and the desired outcome better. Following from this, (4) the implemented solution should ideally be reviewed from a joint perspective and refined accordingly based on multicultural feedback. In management terms, it can be said that those companies that have been successfully translating ‘culture synergy’ into action seem to be using those four steps in specific cultural encounters (please see Fig.2 for the steps of cultural learning).

[6] This could, e.g., be a hidden agenda, or matters about which we have sensitive feelings.

[7] It suggests greater openness to information, opinions and new ideas about oneself as well as about specific group processes, since the hidden area is reduced by self-disclosure. It implies that less energy is tied up in defending this area. Since more of one's needs are unbound, there is greater likelihood of satisfaction with the work, and more involvement with what the group is doing.


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University of Leeds – Leeds Business School
80 - very good
Effective Interpersonal Communications




Title: Effective interpersonal communications in a multi-cultural work environment