Culture and Communication Risks

The two things bringing a cultural revolution globally are – recession and social media. Both nations and organizations are struggling to adapt to the changes required in mindset and behavior. Recession has ensured that the fittest corporate citizens are those who can operate globally, work where the demand is, and compete at a global level with the cheapest resources. Social media has connected everybody and everyone is accessible on the same platform. A CEO  is just a tweet away from Gen Y fresh graduate. The layers of authority and distance are diminishing. The organizations and employees that adapt to the cultural change quickly will thrive in the next few years.

Therefore, the need of the hour is to become a global employee with a capability to understand cultures of at least a few of the countries with high Gross Domestic Product – US, France, UK, Japan, Germany from the developed countries and Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa and Russia from the emerging markets. Multinationals are trading with these countries and/or have offices in these countries.This cannot be taken lightly. The graph below from the Economist Intelligence report “Competing Across Borders” will help you understand the impact of cross-cultural communication.

About one-third of the respondents stated that profits, revenue and market share improved significantly with better communication. To counter the cross border communication challenges, organizations are focusing on providing cultural, linguistic and conflict resolution training. However, there is no simple solution. Though training might help, it gives a current scenario. Psychologists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, conducted experiments to assess the probability of entering into disputes depending on the cultural background. They realized that current behavior of a person is influenced by history of couple of centuries. Where the person is coming from matters. Typically, a warrior class, such as Sikhs and Gorkhas in India, are going to be more aggressive in organizations. As leaders and employees both bring their personal values while at work, the corporate culture changes on the basis on the position and number of people  of a community.

Though this experiment raises questions on whether any individual can truly become a global citizen, it is a critical requirement. Disputes are caused due to cultural and linguistic differences as shown in the adjoining graph. Insufficient clarity in communication can cause major disasters, especially when bounded by cultural protocol. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers – The Story of Success” gave example of Korean Air. The airiline, Korean Air, during 1988 to 1998, had a loss rate of 4.79 per million departures. In comparison, American carrier United Airlines, for the same period had a loss rate of o.27 per million departures. That is, Korean Air was having 17 times higher loss rate than the American airline. It had 8 airplane crashes in the period.

The reason attributed for most of plane crashes was “unclear communication” and not plane defects or pilot inexperience. The Korean culture has high power distance index and the flight officers were unable to plainly tell their captains that they were flying on the wrong route, were out of fuel or weather was bad. Can you believe it, due to the respect and deference flight officers showed to their captains and officers in air traffic control rooms, over a thousand passengers lost their lives? Instead of taking control of the plane they chose to show reverence!

Another amazing fact mentioned in the book is that more planes crash when the captain is the pilot, rather than when flight officers are flying. Simply because when flight officers are doing something wrong, the captains due to their position of authority, do not hesitate to call out the mistake. On the other hand, flight officers chose diplomatic responses which have a higher probability of misinterpretation as severity of the situation is not conveyed clearly. Korean Air recovered and became a safe airline, after they trained all captains and flight officers on speaking clearly and plainly in English while flying, among themselves and the air traffic control rooms.

Looking from another lens, employees are less likely to highlight risks to seniors in countries and organizations with authoritarian cultures. Juniors may hesitate to paint the full picture explicitly for senior managers to understand high risk situations, and crises would occur without proper risk mitigation. Risk managers and crises managers need to be taught the art of clearly communicating concerns and issues.

Closing thoughts

English has become a global language, but without taking the cultural context it doesn’t make sense to a reader from another country. For instance, take a look at the blogs of  Americans, British, Australians and Indians, all are writing English but very differently. Just by reading the blog post, one can identify the country of the blogger. Hence, with increasing complexity in business, the nuances of communication become more important. Communication failure can cause disastrous consequences. When I am flying, I would prefer that the flight officer says to the captain – “Buddy, we are flying on the wrong course.”


  1. Competing Across Borders – Economist Intelligence Unit
  2. Outliers – The Story of Success – Malcolm Gladwell