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How Culture Can Affect Communications

When you finish reading this post, head over to your bookshelf and grab your copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. If you’ve loaned yours out, lean into the hall and ask to borrow someone’s copy – I swear this book is everywhere. Flip to Chapter 7 The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. It’s a harrowing read, and provides some stark examples of the importance of thinking about communications and culture from a strategic perspective.

The kind of errors that cause plane crashes are invariably errors of teamwork and communication. (p.184)

The key point of Gladwell’s argument is that, if a passenger jet goes down today, it likely isn’t from situations the crew doesn’t know about or couldn’t fix for lack of skill. Poor coordination of activities and miscommunication compound a root problem such as mechanical failure, weather, or judgement and a serious challenge becomes a tragedy. One of the reasons this happens is because of how people behave and communicate around social constructions such as rank or status. Ethnicity influences that behaviour.

Gladwell references the work of Professor Geerte Hofstede, a researcher who “conducted perhaps the most comprehensive study of how values in the workplace are influenced by culture.” I recommend visiting his site to see his model identifying five dimensions that can be used to contrast cultural values. The five dimensions are:

Canada USA China
Power Distance Index



Uncertainty Avoidance Index

Long-Term Orientation





















I won’t elaborate on all of these here – Prof. Hofstede’s site does that far better than I could. In brief it says that Canadians on the whole have a somewhat flat social hierarchy (PDI) with high valuation of the individual (IDV), men have somewhat masculine-specific values (MAS), we’re pretty accommodating of uncertainty (UAI), and we’re oriented more towards fulfilling social obligations and saving face than perseverance and thrift (LTO).

The key dimension at play in Gladwell’s plane crash examples is Power Distance. Basically, the pilots didn’t behave appropriately and crashed their planes because they didn’t have the right information. In the ethnically-influenced power dynamic of those cockpits, doing everything it would have taken to ensure they had that information and were acting on it correctly wasn’t culturally appropriate behaviour for their crews.

I am not suggesting an ethnically reductionist approach to the workplace. Gladwell most explicitly isn’t either.  Cultural contexts such as ethnicity, gender and generation are important to who we are and how we interact with each other, no question. And they’re of huge importance for organizations today with global operations, multicultural communities, women and men in all roles and levels, and four generations in the North American workforce.

We need to be aware of the factors that may influence expectations and behaviours in our companies so that we are not working against them, but it is the resulting corporate culture of a given workplace that matters.

Leadership matters: if the boss’ leadership style does not allow opportunities for input, this creates a high local PDI, regardless of nationality.

Engagement, involvement and onboarding matter: If someone is shy, or too new, or too cynical and doesn’t volunteer what they know, it’s of no more practical difference than if it wasn’t appropriate for him or her to speak up.

If there is a hierarchical communication structure that is keeping people from having the information they need to perform at their best, that’s a problem. We have to look at developing work behaviours and communications that support the best outcomes.

As recently as ten years ago, Korean Air was one of the most dangerous airlines to fly, crashing planes more than 17 times as often as an airline like United (p.180). Through a number of improvements, including language training and cockpit-appropriate communication behaviours, they are now among the best.

In light of Gladwell’s observations, we need to be aware that culture is having an impact on how communications happens in our organizations as well. We need to ask how the experience of communicating is different for employees, taking into account ethnicity, age, gender, rank, or other cultural dimension and considering its impact on outcomes, engagement, and satisfaction.

Tools for communicators to accomplish this include:

  • Communications audits and communication satisfaction surveys,
  • Anonymous interviews by a third-party to solicit honest feedback,
  • The use of corporate mass communications that bypass gatekeepers so that all employees have equal opportunity to understand the organization’s situation and objectives,
  • Communication training, coaching, and practice for managers,
  • Supporting managers in their roles as communicators with prepared materials so they are better equipped to clarify objectives to teams and individuals, and
  • The use of corporate intranets and social networks, again, to bypass gatekeepers and encourage information and knowledge sharing laterally and upwards

As with any culture shift, these things take time and need to be treated with consistency and continuity. Employees and leaders have to learn the skills and the trust which can only come from dialogue, practice and seeing the benefits of improved interactions.

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