The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.

– George Bernard Shaw –

One of the main characteristics of intercultural communication is that it does usually take place among “strangers“: people born and raised in different environments, accustomed to often divergent sets of values and beliefs which every party considers to be the norm.

Among the several factors that might have a negative impact on the communication process – such as the choice of a wrong channel, background noise and other types of distractions, specific jargon only known to one of the parties involved, etc. -, lack of familiarity with the cultural context in which the exchange occurs plays an important role, since people from diverse cultural backgrounds may have divergent understanding of both verbal and non-verbal messages (according to authors Gudykunst and Kim, we communicate the way we do because we are raised in a particular culture and learn its language, rules, and norms. Because we learn the language, rules, and norms of our culture by a very early age (between five and ten years of age), however, we generally are unaware of how culture influences our behavior in general and our communication in particular”).

While the concepts of “right” and “wrong” are subjective and determined by personal circumstances, workplace relationships are heavily influenced by power dynamics and by ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own culture is the correct way of living, originally defined by social scientist William G. Sumner as “[the] technical name for this view of things in which one’s own group is the center of everything, and all others are scaled and rated with reference to it.

“If anyone, no matter who, were given the opportunity of choosing from amongst all the nations in the world the set of beliefs which he thought best, he would inevitably – after careful considerations of their relative merits – choose that of his own country. Everyone without exception believes his own native customs, and the religion he was brought up in, to be the best.”

– Herodotus, The Histories

Since the main pillar of ethnocentrism is assumed superiority of a group over another, companies characterised by an ethnocentric culture (those that identify themselves with the nationality of their owners/founders) and by a centralized approach, choose to not hire locally when expanding internationally (and if they do is strictly for subordinate roles), are likely to ignore or underestimate feedback and suggestions provided by their subsidiaries, tend to be inflexible in their approach to local standards and customer preferences.

A particular area of concern is represented by the communication occurring between managers and subordinates, especially when subsidiaries in developing countries are involved: ethnocentric managers may perceive out-group (*those people who do not belong to a specific in-group) subordinates as lacking either important skills or the credibility to succeed in their role, while ethnocentric subordinates may not trust or be able to relate to the out-group manager.

“Power resides only where men believe it resides. […] A shadow on the wall, yet shadows can kill. And oft-times a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” 

– George R.R. Martin, A Clash of Kings –

With regard to power dynamics, it is important to consider how power differentials in the workplace are likely to foster and perpetuate stereotypes and preconceptions: in her book “Controlling Other People: The impact of power in stereotyping”, researcher Susan Fiske claimed that “Secretaries know more about their bosses than vice-versa; graduate students know more about their advisors than vice-versa”, while, on a related note, social psychologist Nancy Henley noted that “Subordinates are expected to yield to superiors and there is a cultural expectation that a subordinate will not interrupt a superior”.

Have you ever heard of a phenomenon known as “Mum effect” (or “code of silence”)? It indicates a situation in which at least one of the main stakeholders either withholds or purposely distorts critical information in order to avoid facing negative repercussions.

Me as a little staff auditor? … I sure wouldn’t want to march into this guy’s office and tell him the project that he had been championing for all these years should be put to death” (Keil and Robey, 2001).

According to some studies, such an effect seems to be a common occurrence in IT Project Reporting, especially when external vendors are involved.

Whether due to ethnocentric views or to dysfunctional power dynamics, the combination of workers whose opinions and knowledge may not be valued and unaware leaders who may not have a realistic insight into workplace situations contributes to creating a toxic environment, bound to damage beyond repair any organization characterized by a strict hierarchical structure.

Image source: Drobotdean –