Creating a union proof organization – one where unions simply aren’t necessary – can be a challenge in today’s workplace. Generational and culture differences mean you’ve got to be highly attuned to every element of your communication.
Consider the following scenario:
A non-native speaker from China is talking to a U.S. native co-worker, and the subject of union organizing comes up. The company has educated employees on the risks of unionization, and the native-English speaking team member says, “We have to do everything by the book in order to stop any union from misleading our co-workers. Don’t let anyone catch you off guard.” However, your English-speaking team member might as well be communicating in a foreign language. In fact, the non-native speaker might misinterpret the statements as a threat because she focuses on the words she understands, like “stop,” “catch you” and “guard.”
If a similar scenario occurs during an organizing campaign, and the person speaking is a manager, there is another issue beyond the threat perspective. The statements could be interpreted as having a “chilling effect” and discouraging employees from exercising their legal rights to support a union – something to which the NLRB is currently highly attuned and won’t hesitate to deem an Unfair Labor Practice.
As Subtle as Body Language or as Direct as a Street Sign
As the workforce becomes increasingly multicultural, effective leaders face the challenge of conveying information in a way that can be understood by people from a variety of cultures. Language is contextual. Anthropologist Edward Hall used the expressions “low-context cultures” and “high-context cultures” in his book “Beyond Culture” to describe cultural influences on communication. Culture contextualizes language, impacting business negotiations, employee management, training and development programs, and how well employees are able to collaborate. It also influences verbal and non-verbal communication interpretations, perspectives, attitudes and behaviors.
Language contextualization depends to a greater or lesser degree on how much speakers rely on other things besides words when communicating. These other things, like cultural knowledge and customs, are filters, enabling members of the culture to focus on what society considers important. In high-context cultures, which are relationship-based or group-oriented societies, interpretations of what is said depend heavily on the situation and cultural norms.
The goal of the high-context implicit communication is to convey information in a way that protects the group and the status of the speaker, and the message cannot be correctly understood without cultural background information. Communication is preferably oral and oral agreements are binding, but messages are not phrased as direct communication, so there is heavy dependence on non-verbal and cultural cues. High-context cultures include Asian countries like China, Japan, South Korea and India; South American countries; most African continent nations; and most of the Middle Eastern countries.
Low-context cultures are individualistic and don’t depend on relationships. Instead, they depend on direct or explicit communication that spells out information in the message. That explains the American love of signs, written instructions, detailed policies and procedures, and even the numbering and naming of office rooms. The communication is preferably non-verbal, and oral agreements are non-binding in most cases. Any verbal communication is as direct as a street sign. Low-context cultures include the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and countries in Europe’s northwest region, like Germany and Switzerland.
When “Yes” Means “Maybe” or “No”
How does this play out in the workplace and influence becoming a union-proof company? As an example of how one word can depend on contextualization, did you know that the word “yes” may mean something different depending on the person’s cultural influences? When you ask an employee if she knows there is a deadline, a native English speaker from the U.S., a low-context culture, will say, “yes,” which implies the person knows there is a deadline and does know the deadline date. Otherwise, she would ask more questions like, “What is the deadline date?”
However, if you ask a non-native speaking person from a high-context culture the same question and get a “yes,” it may only mean that the person knows that there is a deadline, but does not know the deadline date. In this case, a “yes” may mean “maybe” or “no.” In another example, during a training meeting, it would be better for the employer to offer to go over information again, even if the high-context employee says the review is not necessary. A “no” may mean “maybe” or “yes.”
It is easy to see how cultural differences can influence communication effectiveness. People in high-context cultures find conflict to be harmful to communication, and would not understand union organizing campaign speech in which insults are hurled and the employer is heavily criticized. U.S. natives expect the direct language. Understanding language contextualization is a step in the process of developing cultural intelligence and can greatly influence everything from developing positive employee relations to managing the communication process during an unionization campaign. As an employer, you need to ensure your managers understand how to effectively communicate in a cross-cultural situation. It is just one more way to union proof your organization.