While on a diplomatic visit to Australia back in 1992, President George Bush flashed the peace sign to local demonstrators. Unfortunately, that particular gesture has a different meaning "Down Under" and is actually considered to be obscene.
A couple of decades later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, while trying to ease tensions and promote cooperation with the Russian government, presented the Russian Foreign Minister with a symbolic red button with the word "peregruzka" printed on it. While the American delegation believed this to be the Russian word for "reset," it was actually the word for "overcharged."
If some of the most powerful leaders of the free world, supported by teams of translators and diplomatic staff, can make these kinds of errors, your average employee has little hope of avoiding a similar faux pas when navigating the various languages, cultures and backgrounds that make up the modern, diverse workplace.
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According to surveys of large corporations performed by David Grossman, the average employee will cost their company over $26,000 each year due to "productivity losses resulting from communication barriers."
Similarly, a 2010 report estimated that a company with 100 employees could lose up to $450,000 each year due to "blunders, inefficiencies, and misunderstandings" associated only with email communication.
To avoid these losses, you need to create an environment where all employee voices can be heard and understood. Workplace communication, whether within the company or to customers or outside partners, should be based on an attitude of mutual respect and clarity that can embrace diverse opinions without compromising employee identity.
Create guidelines that make it clear what language employees should use and avoid. Provide your staff with tools to identify and account for unconscious biases, and offer training specifically targeted at avoiding potentially offensive communication.
Or if you wish to sound smart - be wary of signal amplification bias. Put simply, this bias reflects our inclination to overestimate how much our behavior or communication conveys our internal thoughts or feelings. And studies indicate that the magnitude of this bias can be connected to our own preconceptions and fears of rejection.
Of course cultural and language gaps can also play into these assumptions. When communicating with co-workers, do not assume that they know what you mean. Encourage clear, specific communication among staff to help avoid this mental pitfall. Similarly, when drafting corporate messaging, avoid vague language or idioms.
One of the distinct advantages of a diverse workforce is the varied opinions and perspectives that accompany it. During business discussions and meetings, encourage employees to be vocal about their personal thoughts and experiences, but provide them with the tools to engage in these discussions courteously.
Encourage managers to guide discussions that separate ideas from emotions. And give your employees the permission to be wrong.
Human conflict is inevitable. And once your business has more than one employee, disagreements will naturally occur. Rather than allowing these differences of opinion to fester and promote strife, create a proactive, well-established plan for resolving office quarrels.
Encourage employees to reach out to managers and human resources to address larger interpersonal issues, and provide all staff with training on how to handle conflict maturely and respectfully.
As the diversity of your company increases, the opportunities for certain words, gestures, or means of non-verbal communication to be misconstrued or wrongly interpreted will only increase. Take measures to educate your staff on how to effectively communicate across common cultural boundaries.
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