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9 Tell-Tale Signs Your Employees Are Struggling With Cross-Cultural Communication

“Our world is more connected than ever before.” This is a quote from a November 2019 Northeastern University post. It was very true back then but, as the pandemic started, globalization took a whole new meaning. It is becoming more and more common to interact with colleagues, clients, and suppliers from different countries on a regular basis. Having the whole world as our oyster is full of benefits. However, lacking cultural awareness and making cross-cultural mistakes can severely damage your productivity, your business image, and your relationship with others.

We’ve asked HR experts, business leaders, and entrepreneurs to provide clear signs that show a team is struggling with cross-cultural communication.

What is cross-cultural communication?

Cross-cultural communication is the interaction between people from different geographical or cultural backgrounds. Our culture, the place we grew up in, our age, our ethnicity, our governments, and all the other cultural elements affect the way we communicate with each other. It goes beyond a question of word choice. Our culture also shapes our attitudes, our body language, our gestures, our values, and in general the way we think and interact.

Successful multicultural communication means that for you to communicate effectively with people from abroad, you need to identify both the differences and the similarities in your communication patterns –verbal and non-verbal.

9 signs your employees are struggling with cross-cultural communication

Miscommunication in cross-cultural exchange can stem from language differences, nonverbal misunderstandings, stereotypes, our tendency to think that our communication style is universal, and also our confusion or anxiety toward the unknown.

For you and your teams to avoid miscommunication in the workplace, prevention is king (or queen)! Employee training on cross-cultural communication will help you tackle the problem before it even arises and avoid struggles early on. It is therefore essential that you provide the support your teams need when it comes to being culturally aware. Learning how to manage diversity and inclusion is not only about expanding your market range across borders, but also about being mindful of the different cultures around the world.

HR Guide Diversity and Inclusion Download

Check if it's already too late for prevention –these 9 signs show that your employees might be already struggling to communicate with each other across cultures. If you identify more than two in your organization, now might be a good time to take action.

1 - Slow progress

  • Lack of communication
  • Too many meetings
  • Lower productivity
  • Not getting the job done

Communication happens differently in different cultures, and lacking the necessary cultural awareness will result in slow progress. If an employee doesn’t fully understand a message, they might not know that their colleagues are expecting a reply, and the others might complain about them not answering their emails. It can also be the case of not knowing how to express their ideas or disapproval about a specific topic.

It can also happen that too many meetings are needed to align and be on the same page about the next steps and procedures. This leads to either lower productivity or, even worse, not getting the job done.

2 - Frequent rework

  • Unclear roles and responsibilities
  • Unclear answers
  • Indirect communication not being properly understood
  • Tasks having to be done all over again because of a misunderstanding

Some cultures are more assertive than others. This means that low-assertive cultures like Peru, Japan, and India tend to communicate more indirectly and appreciate sophisticated, nuanced, and layered messages. They often express feedback with the phrase “You might want to consider X.” On the opposite side of the spectrum, we have Israel, Austria, and Germany. These high-assertive cultures often communicate very directly and unambiguously. People from these cultures appreciate precise, simple, and clear messages. They might say things like "You're wrong." This specific cultural difference will likely result in unclear communication and employees might not know exactly what they’re supposed to do.

Similarly, they might not feel confident or empowered enough to ask for clarification. This often leads to misunderstandings and having to do things all over again.

Real-life example: “I work with a couple of developers in China. They are good and their work is of high quality, but I often find this gap in understanding, between what I’m explaining and what gets done. They both speak and understand English, so I don’t think it’s a language issue, really. I get the sense that culturally they’re not accustomed (or feel empowered) to ask a lot of questions like, say, in the US (where I am). So I’m often left questioning if they understand the requirements well. And I sometimes find that what was understood was different.”

3 - False assumptions

  • Mismatched expectations
  • Different pictures of reality
  • Lack of interaction

We communicate differently, yes. This means that we not only express ideas in a very specific way, but we also understand them differently. When a culture communicates in an indirect way, they may think they have clearly asked for something, and the person from a direct culture can interpret it as a mere suggestion. This leads to mismatched expectations, different pictures of reality, and a lack of interaction (where one party thinks the issue has been resolved but, for the other, there is a lot to discuss).

Here's an example: You pitch something to your manager and she says - “That’s interesting.” If you are from Germany, you might think that your boss likes your suggestion. However, if you are from the United States, you will probably think that they have some reservations about your idea.

4 - Internal tension

  • Group conflicts
  • 'Us' vs 'them'
  • Blaming ‘them’
  • Lack of trust

If you have started to hire overseas and most employees speak a common language that the newbies don’t speak or master, watch out for internal tensions! The URM (underrepresented minorities) might feel left out and this can create an “us versus them” environment. 

This kind of inner conflict is likely to arise when the communication styles differ. The similarities and differences in terms of directness/indirectness, power distance, individualism/collectivism, confrontation/harmony, and focus on task/relationship building will impact how they see each other and to what extent they may bond. Team members can blame each other for all issues while not taking any initiatives to smooth the communication.

If you don’t understand the communication patterns of the other team members, you may think that they are acting fake or that they’re hiding something. A person that was born and raised in the Netherlands may be used to providing straightforward feedback and saying things in a direct way. That same person might not understand why their British counterpart is being so overly polite and take it as if they are not being fully honest. These misunderstandings can easily take a toll on employee relations.

Real-life example: “In the team that I manage, I see it a lot of blaming ‘them’ for all issues, while not taking any initiatives to smooth the communication.”

5 - Complaints like ‘no one is talking’

  • People complain about others not talking
  • Calls are awkward
  • The communication doesn’t flow

Different cultures have different ways of indicating that they have a question, that they want to say ‘no’, or that they disagree with something. If the people involved don’t understand others’ cues, calls will turn awkward, and this can lead to a ‘void’ in communication. 

In Japan, if you are unable to understand social cues or can't tell what's happening with the people in the room, you risk being called “KY” –a pejorative Japanese slang term that stands for “kuuki ga yomenai”, or “unable to read the air”.

Real-life example: When Erin Meyer asked ‘Do you have any questions?’ at the end of a presentation she gave in Japan, no one raised their hand. She understood that really no one had anything to add, but then another person in the group pointed out that there might have actually been some questions. It turned out, communication in Japan is usually very indirect. In the Japanese culture, direct eye contact is the way of indicating that they have something to add.

6 - Too many people getting involved

  • Many people working on the same project
  • Multiple people unnecessarily getting involved in an issue
  • Issues being escalated instead of resolved peer to peer

If you notice that too many people need to get involved, either to work on the same project or to solve an issue, it might be an indication that your employees aren’t fully understanding each other. If they don’t feel they can connect or communicate with each other, you will see that issues are escalated quickly and that either you or any other manager will need to intervene. This is alarming on many levels –wasted resources, disengaged employees, fragmented teams… In short, just the total opposite of the desired synergy you’re aiming for.

7 - Team disengagement

  • Lack of team communication
  • Drop in engagement metrics

The previous signs all lead to a lack of team communication and a drop in engagement metrics. If your employees aren’t connecting with each other and understanding their intentions, they could grow apart and feel alienated from the team. A 2014 survey found that the more friends a person has at work, the less likely they are to accept a job elsewhere. This suggests that investing in employee engagement and team building will help you drive retention. Sometimes, it is a question of learning the common language and its nuances, others it will be about spending more ‘down-time’ together.

8 - Change in employee turnover rates

  • Multiple people from similar backgrounds being let go or pushed out

If you experience a shift in employee turnover rates, there must be something going on within your organization. Look at whether those people leaving belong to underrepresented groups or whether they come from similar backgrounds. This might be a sign that your employees are struggling with cross-cultural communication or that they are encountering cultural barriers.

9 - Hiring challenges

  • Inability to hire and retain URM

If your employees belonging to URM are leaving your organization, other minority groups will pick that up and decide to look for a job elsewhere. Diversity and inclusion is a fundamental pillar in today’s workplace culture. For you to achieve true diversity and inclusion, offering your workforce solid training on cultural awareness, inclusion, and communication is crucial.


Helping your teams develop their cross-cultural competence is a gift that works both ways –your teams will be more invested, your organization will thrive, and your employees will be able to represent your company exceptionally well in a global marketplace.

HR Guide Diversity and Inclusion Download

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