Inclusive Leadership and Communication Across Cultures

20 May 2024
Latest Insights From Symmetra, Knowledge

On the world day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, we are sharing actionable tips for fostering inclusive communication across cultures to build more inclusive, global workplaces.


Most of us have experienced it at one point or another in our careers: the cultural faux pas. Whether it’s a misplaced remark or the regrettable tone of a message sent with a swift keystroke, ‘swoosh,’that once we realise it, makes us sink with embarrassment and wishing that there was a ‘cancel send ’button.

Members of global teams in particular grapple with these challenges, particularly when their companies transition from being mere multinational entities to truly global organisations that reflect the many cultures spanning their various locations.

This evolution introduces complexities, especially when headquarters are established in one country, while other offices and their employees are dispersed across different regions. Everyday workplace scenarios, such as communicating deadlines, providing progress updates, or requesting resources, can easily become cultural minefields. Even performance evaluations, intended to provide constructive feedback and guidance, can result in misunderstandings, demotivation, or wasted efforts.

In today’s interconnected world, characterized by virtual interactions and global offices, the need for leaders skilled in effectively navigating cultural diversity has never been greater. It’s crucial to recognise that culture extends far beyond national borders, as many countries have sub-cultures and the organisations themselves develop distinct cultural norms that may be aligned with the corporate culture and/or that of the region in which they are operating. In the face of differences and potential misunderstandings, inclusive behaviours become and essential competency in building cultural intelligence for both global and non-global teams alike!

Understanding how cultural differences impact communication and potential relationships and productivity especially in virtual or remote settings, is a core capability of cultural intelligence. A couple of key reminders when working to improve our ability to work across these cultural differences:

  • Remember that biases, whatever their source, can cloud our perception of others and it is up to us to challenge them.
  • Consider how our own cultural background, in particular, can lead to misinterpretations and take responsibility for our role when they occur.
  • Being effective in culturally diverse environments involves recognising what we know and don’t know about others, particularly those who come from diverse lived experiences and then being intentional to connect across differences when they occur.

Here, are some quick tips to help you navigate cultural complexities and communicate more effectively across differences in culture and lived experiences.

Tips for Dialogue Across Cultural Differences


Bridge Over Bond

Challenge the default inclination to “bond” or create comfort over similarities. Instead, embrace the differences that enrich your connection and add value to your relationship, creating a “bridge” of connection across differences.


Foster a Calm, Open, and Curious Mindset


Be consciously aware of your mindset during conversations. Take responsibility for your own feelings and remain open to learning. Recognise signs of defensiveness or judgment and shift towards curiosity. View conversation missteps as opportunities for growth.


Express Willingness to Discuss Unfamiliar Situations


Express and demonstrate openness to exploring topics that are unfamiliar to you, especially when it comes to differences in lived experience. Recognise and acknowledge the potential burden your conversation partner might carry as a representative of their race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or cultural background, and take personal initiative to research and learn about experiences outside of your own.


Understand What Others Value Before Offering Advice


When a colleague or team member confides in you about a challenge they’re facing, resist the urge to immediately offer solutions. Take the time to understand their experiences and what they value before providing guidance. Allow for multiple conversations to fully comprehend their perspective and if needed, take notes to revisit solutions in future conversations. By prioritising empathy and understanding, you can offer more tailored and effective support.


Communicate Thoughts, Feelings, and Intentions Openly


Be transparent about your own experiences and uncertainties, especially when you have follow-up questions or don’t have experience with a particular situation. That way, your intentions are less likely to be lost in communication or misunderstood.


Affirm and Show Appreciation


Cultivate a reciprocal relationship where you demonstrate your appreciation and the value of the relationship for you. Validate their feelings and affirm what is important to them, avoiding language and non-verbal signals that may minimise, deny, or dismiss their experiences.


Listen More Than You Speak


Above all, prioritize active listening. This also means listening for non-verbal communication, paying attention to changes in tone or body language that may indicate discomfort. If you feel unsure, pause the conversation and check-in with where your colleague may be mentally and emotionally, and why. This demonstrates respect for their feelings and promotes mutual understanding and trust.


At Symmetra, we help our clients implement global Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion strategies that help them transform from a multinational company to a truly global organisation that embraces and leverages the cultural richness across all their locations. This shift requires attention to build inclusion capabilities that allow for dialogue and development. That is key to building a truly inclusive, global workplace.