Blind Spot – How Culture Impacts Communication

Post by Niamh Walsh, Learnovate

Nowhere is effective communication more urgent than safety-critical industries such as nuclear power plants, offshore oil platforms, rail transport and commercial aviation. We have published a research report about the impact of culture on communications in safety-critical industries with an emphasis on how companies can assess communication skills in these environments. The report is published in partnership with speech technology company Vocavio, who provide software to assess communication performance in high workload-stress environments, like commercial aviation.

Companies are betting on a future where artificial intelligence and machine learning increasingly automate manual labour and routine cognitive processes – freeing workers to focus on decision-making and leadership. The ideal employee is no longer mandated to possess professional and technical skills out of the box. Today’s employers seek higher-order skills, transferable skills, transversal skills, 21st-century skills, soft skills, leadership skills, people skills. The variety of names we use to talk about these skills is a marker of their complexity. Companies are desperate to accurately assess these advanced skills in prospective candidates and develop these skills in current employees. This is no easy task.

Companies use a variety of established tools and methodologies to assess workplace skills including quizzes, on-the-job demonstrations, self-assessment and peer-assessment. However, transversal skills are more challenging for learning professionals to assess because they are intricately woven into a complex repertoire of other skills and behaviours. Communication is a perfect example of a skill that needs to be assessed alongside other skills and behaviours in a context that includes collaboration, teamwork and problem-solving.

Communication is a complex contextual skill that organisations need to adequately assess in current and prospective employees.

One skill to rule them all

The skills companies urgently seek include critical and innovative thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. Communication is arguably the ‘big daddy’ skill in this family because the others are less potent in the absence of effective communication. The capacity to amplify your vision, your thinking and your work are hampered without continual two-way communication with your team, your stakeholders and your end-buyer. Companies need a reliable framework and tools to accurately monitor and quantify the effectiveness of communication in a team or in a leader. When effective communication in your organisation is mission critical, you must embed fault tolerance in your communications as well as your processes and systems.

For companies operating in safety-critical sectors, effective communication minimises the risk of human error.

Blind spots

Culture has a profound impact on how individuals and teams communicate and respond to situations in the moment. We need to grow our awareness of our own cultural heritage and our unconscious biases. By noticing and appreciating the richness and variety of human experience, we begin to perceive the subtle cultural differences that encourage us to gently interrogate our iron-clad assumptions and expectations about what behaviour is 'default', 'normal' or 'correct'. By engaging with diverse teams and opening ourselves to new experiences, we gradually uncover the unwritten, unquestioned, unconscious rules and codes that we’ve absorbed since childhood.

Hidden Influences

An individual’s lived experience, perception and cultural background influence their communication and behaviour. Our gestures, expressions, non-verbal communication and body language are shaped by the cultural norms we absorbed in our developing years. Our cultural background influences the context of our communications by differences in how we perceive and value time, space and touch. To understand the rich and complex influence of culture and other hidden impacts in our communication, we should pay attention to these differences:

Context

A person who grew up in a low-context culture such as the US or Germany expects communication to be explicit and specific. A person from a high-context culture, such as Japan or Indonesia, expects the listener to accurately interpret indirect messaging and subtle non-verbal cues in their communication.

Language

A person who is communicating in a language they have learned, especially in later years, will differ in style and interpretation from a person who is speaking in their native tongue.

Emotional Expression

Cultures vary in their comfort with the expression of emotion. An open expression of emotion that is acceptable in Italy or the US, may generate discomfort and disquiet in Japan or the UK.

Gender

Gender generates differences in the way we communicate as individuals and how we influence groups.

Generation

Our generation and stage in life impact what we perceive as ‘appropriate’ communication and behaviour in a workplace setting.

Interpersonal Style

As well as our cultural codes, we all express ourselves according to our own interpersonal style and habitual way of behaving with others.

Organisational Culture

Corporate culture adds another layer of complexity to our communications and responses in a workplace setting. Employees unconsciously absorb the stated and unstated beliefs, goals and expectations of the organisation. Employees may come and go but the culture remains. In safety-critical workplaces, this may include an unacknowledged tension between safety and performance that can impact employee behaviour.

Technology

Inserting technology into our communications can exacerbate the differences and variance between individuals, teams, organisations and nationalities.

While gender influences how we communicate with each other as individuals and in groups, we also have our own preferred interpersonal style. 

Human Intervention

Despite increasingly sophisticated safety-critical systems, human intervention is still frequently required. Effective assessment and development of culturally-aware communication skills reduce the risk of human error in safety-critical and mission-critical environments while enabling organisations to promote excellence among their workforce.

Talk to us

If you want to access the research capabilities at Learnovate, talk to Tom at tom.pollock@learnovatecentre.org or +353 1 896 4910.

The Impact of Culture on Communications Assessment in Safety-Critical Environments

Learnovate has published a report in partnership with Vocavio on the impact of culture on communications in safety-critical environments. Funded by Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland, the Learnovate Centre is one of Europe’s leading research centres in learning technologies. Speech technology company Vocavio provides software to assess team communication performance in high workload-stress environments.

The report includes:

  • Best practices and research on the assessment of communication skills in safety-critical environments
  • The impact of culture on communication skills, and on assessment of communication skills

Report Author

Janet Benson

Corporate & Adult Learning Lead

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