Why Is Business Communication So Difficult?

Picture this: you attend meetings diligently, answer questions when asked, and attentively pay attention to what your colleagues say. You even write meeting reports. You are proud of your participation and the support you give your colleagues.

One day, your boss pulls you aside and says that they’re concerned about your lack of participation. What? You’re surprised—you thought you already were participating. Your boss explains that to really be a team player, you need to speak up more, jump into discussions, and more proactively share your opinion. You were just trying to be respectful and support your team, but your boss is saying that’s not enough.

Not to mention, your boss’s request is challenging. Maybe you don’t have any practice speaking up, or in your culture it’s more polite to wait for others to respond and only speak when called upon. As a result, you have many questions: How do you know when to give your opinion? What’s the right timing?

But the problem can go the other way, too: Oftentimes, when North American or European employees move to Asia, their communication style is seen as too aggressive or selfish. In reality, they are only trying to participate and actively contribute. However, because they aren’t following the rules of the new communication culture around them, they are making bad impressions and potentially hurting business relationships.

The problem is that two different communication cultures are clashing. However, many managers and employees don’t realize it’s a cultural clash at all. Instead, they may think their coworkers have poor language skills or, worse, are poor team players. Maybe they even develop negative feelings.

This isn’t only an imaginary situation. In fact, our research shows that disconnects between direct communication cultures and indirect communication cultures are very common. It can cause frustration and make the workplace a stressful experience—but it doesn’t have to be that way. 

In this chapter, we’ll talk about how widespread this problem is, what research says about the impact to individuals, and what research says about the impact to businesses overall.

How widespread is this problem?

No matter the communication culture you were born in, you have probably experienced some kind of communication gap on occasion. When it comes to communication, people often think their situation is unique. The reality is that this problem is more widespread than even we initially thought.

In a survey of foreign companies across 7 industries in Japan, we discovered that 64 percent of Japanese employees report being frustrated when working in global environments. Furthermore, 81 percent of Japanese managers report being frustrated working in global environments.

But the worst part is, only nine percent of non-Japanese colleagues are aware of this frustration.

In fact, not only are non-Japanese employees unaware that their colleagues are frustrated, but very few of them believe their Japanese colleagues are participating assertively at all—only 17 percent. And the majority—68 percent—of foreign employees feel their Japanese colleagues are intentionally “keeping a low profile.”

If you ask Japanese employees, however, it’s a completely different story. Forty-three percent of Japanese employees feel they are participating assertively at work, and only 32% report trying to keep a low profile.

Because of this cultural disconnect, participants report struggling to lead global teams and projects, influence others, and negotiate.

There is a natural, built-in communication gap between these two communication styles. While no one is at fault, steps must be taken to resolve the communication difference before performance can improve.

Why do communication misunderstandings happen? 

Most people do their best to succeed at work, help their team excel, and advance the goals of the company. Work is an important part of everyone’s life. It makes sense to want to do it well.

So when miscommunications arise, it’s not usually on purpose, — commonly, it’s because someone is using communication rules that are different from your own.

These rules are often unwritten assumptions about the best way to communicate. These rules usually come from the culture we grew up in, and are influenced by our community, educational background, gender, or workplace. In other words, our day-to-day culture.

Let’s take a look at two extreme examples of how this can manifest in the workplace.

In culture A, employees:

  1. Express that they are paying attention through listening without interrupting . 
  2. Show concern by sharing any disagreement privately rather than in a meeting
  3. Are thoughtful, waiting for others to respond first
  4. Strengthen the team by focusing on harmony and consensus
  5. Hold meetings to formally approve a decision that has already been made in informal discussions. 

We call this an “indirect team culture.” An indirect communication style is especially effective when everyone on a team shares the same native communication culture.

On the other hand, in culture B, employees:

  1. Express that they are paying attention by sharing comments and opinions
  2. Show concern by expressing disagreement openly and immediately
  3. Are thoughtful by asking others direct questions and giving feedback
  4. Strengthen the team by focusing on individual strengths
  5. Hold meetings to either debate viewpoints, brainstorming ideas, or make decisions.

We call this a “direct team culture.” A direct communication style is especially effective when everyone on a team is from a different native communication culture.

Is indirect or direct communication better at work?

When communicating with someone from a same or similar communication culture, your native communication culture is likely best, regardless of whether it’s indirect or direct. This is because the risk of misunderstanding is relatively low.

However, when communicating with someone from a different communication culture, a more direct communication style is best. This is because there is a higher chance of misunderstanding. You cannot rely on an indirect communication style, which often relies on a shared background or understanding (as you’ll learn in chapter two). 

What about expats working in companies of mostly native communicators? In this case, it’s important that the expat learn the native communication style as quickly impossible. However, communication can be enhanced if their coworkers are open to learning pieces of the expat’s communication style, too. 

What if you’re working in a huge mix of communication cultures, such a regional, global, or multi-national team? In this case, a direct communication style is likely best. You’re not just dealing with two communication cultures—you’re probably dealing with many communication cultures up and down the direct-indirect scale! There is very little shared background or context (perhaps none at all). Therefore, speaking explicitly and directly can ensure that the message is clear.

In short, there is no style that is best in every situation. Instead, it’s best to understand both styles, and switch depending on the conversation, conversation partner, or situation.

How does communication at work affect the individual?

At an individual level, using the correct communication style at work is vital to being successful at work. For example, in direct communication cultures, regularly speaking up is a vital part of being a team player and building strong workplace relationships. Let’s take a look at the research on speaking up:

  1. Speaking up shows that you care.

North American or European business contexts usually follow direct communication rules. In these cultures, employees are expected to be proactive. Being proactive means taking control to make things happen (Parker, Bindl, & Strauss, 2010). To take control and make things happen, you must actively communicate with others and advocate for the needs of yourself and your team.

Speaking up signals to others that you care about the group (Whiting, Maynes, Podsakoff, & Podsakoff, 2012). When coworkers believe that you care about the group, they’re more likely to grant you status in the group. This effect is true even when you’re disagreeing! (Ridgeway, 1978, 1982)

  1. Speaking up makes it easier to build relationships.

Speaking up—even when it’s just small talk—makes it easier to build relationships with others. In a direct communication culture, remaining quiet can seem suspicious or make you seem disinterested. (e.g., Kelley, 1973). As a result, direct communicators may feel awkward or uncomfortable speaking to someone who is quiet.

This makes it challenging to build trust. Without trust, it is difficult to receive support from coworkers. In turn, this makes it difficult to support others.

 By staying quiet, you lose visibility. Others may not feel that supporting you and your customers is risky. At the very least, if they are already busy, they will not prioritize your requests or problems.

  1. Speaking up creates good impressions.

Overall, compared with employees who remain silent, employees who speak up are seen as more capable, independent, helpful, and trustworthy. As a result, speaking up can actually lead to more positive impressions, such as higher performance ratings or status evaluations (Burris, 2012; Whiting et al., 2008; Whiting et al., 2012, Weiss and Morrison 2019).

This status and respect accumulate over time, and can contribute to a more successful and satisfying career.

If you use indirect communication while working in a direct communication culture, you lose these benefits. Within direct communication cultures, people who don’t speak up may be perceived as disengaged or not interested in contributing (Van Dyne et al., 2003). This can leave a bad impression and create a communication gap that causes friction, confusion, and frustration.

How does communication at work affect the organization?

In direct communication cultures, encouraging employees to speak up not only helps the employees, but it helps the company overall, too. In addition to better interpersonal relationships for individual employees, research shows that employees who speak up are more effective and more committed to the organization.

1. Teams that speak up with each other are more effective.

  • Arrangements that allow employees to speak directly encourage trust between employees and management (Holland et al., 2012).
  • When employees speak up regularly to team leaders, the team’s effectiveness is increased (Detert et al., 2013).
  • Employee performance is positively associated with employees regularly speaking up (Song et al., 2019).

Both of these factors ensure leaders are aware of any ongoing problems. Poor communication between leadership and team members can lead to serious problems. 

One infamous example is the Challenger Disaster. On January 28, 1986, NASA launched a spacecraft containing seven astronauts. Unfortunately, it exploded 74 seconds after liftoff, killing everyone inside. 

Why did it explode? A “stunning lack of communication” between engineers and leadership. Engineers attempted to communicate their concerns about the component that eventually led to the explosion in the weeks before the launch. However, none of their concerns reached the leaders or decision-makers. 

This is an extreme example, but highlights how vital open and honest communication is between team members and leaders.

If you are quiet in meetings with your team, you may leave the impression that you are not a team player. This can fragment the team, especially if you are a leader. Others may see you as uninterested or incapable of contributing to the team as a whole.

2. Organizations with a speak up culture have employees that are more committed and engaged.

  • Speaking up is positively related to employee engagement (Rees et al., 2013).
  • Similarly, organizational commitment is positively associated with employees regularly speaking up (Jena et al., 2017).
  • Employees with mechanisms to collectively speak up are less likely to leave the company (Liu et al., 2021b).

Customers can become disappointed with the service they receive, negatively affecting reputation and brand image, which in turn can impact revenue.

In addition to giving employees the skills to speak up, organizations must make it rewarding to speak up. You must build psychological safety, show employees that their comments have impact, and assist employees who still hesitate to speak up. Trust between managers and employees is very important. In fact, the number one reason employees hesitate to speak up is uncertainty around how others will react. The more trust, autonomy, and job security managers give their employees, the more likely employees are to speak up. (Li et al 2020)

Improving Your Business Communication

In this chapter, you learned why workplace communication is important for both individual employees and organizations as a whole.

In the next chapter, you’ll learn more about the different levels of communication, how they build on each other, and where YOU fall on these levels. See you there!

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