How to use Low-Context and High-Context Communication to Improve Your Leadership Effectiveness

How do you communicate with your employees, peers, bosses, and customers? What words, expressions, and nonverbal cues do you use? How do they communicate in return?

Low-Context and High Context communication is widely used to explain cultural differences when conducting international business. Carol Goman explains in detail How Culture Controls Communication differs among countries.

I want to bring the concepts closer to home. As a leader within an organization, you’re just as likely to deal with individuals with a varying degree of cultural influences.

Circumstances may dictate that one form of communication is necessary over the other. Are you aware of your own preference and does this affect how you interpret your interaction with the other person?

What is Low-Context and High Context Communication?

Anthropologist Edward Hall is credited for coming up with the concept of Low-Context and High-Context cultures to describe commonly held behaviors in a society. The concept was developed around 1969. There are five areas of focus:

  1. How people relate to each other
  2. How people communicate
  3. How people treat space
  4. How people treat time
  5. How people learn

A detailed chart for each of the five areas are listed in Context of Cultures: High and Low from University of the Pacific:

Low-context communication is more direct by saying exactly what one means and expecting actions on what was specifically said. 

High-context communication is less what is said and more what is interpreted by nonverbal cues and circumstances surrounding the interaction.

Who’s speaking to you?

“Communication is at the heart of all organizational operations and international relations. It is the most important tool we have for getting things done. It is the basis for understanding, cooperation, and action.”

Moran, R. T., Harris, P. R., & Moran, S. V. (2010). Managing cultural differences. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Butterworth-Heinemann. 44.

Within your organization, you’re working with multiple communication styles. It’s helpful to be aware of their preferred context so you can adapt your style to have the most effective interaction.

Have you ever had a conversation with the IT guy and had to break down your conversation into short, step-by-step points to get to the final request/task?

How about the simple question you wanted to ask an HR team member and it turned into a fifteen minute conversation around family?

Organizational functions take on a cultural dynamic of their own.

Here’s how I’ve come to align the functions across the spectrum of low-context and high-context cultures. So when you’re preparing to have a conversation, think about where that individual resides from either their cultural upbringing or the function in which they’ve chosen their career:

Organizational Functions Spectrum

What is your context preference?

In business, we are communicating daily.  Are you aware of your preferred context? Think about the conversations and interactions you’ve had with peers, bosses or employees? Are you more direct or indirect?

When helping coach, train or develop, low-context communication clearly outlines expectations and helps in work assignments.  When introducing a new process, step-by-step instruction is ideal.

With personnel issues, shift to high-context communication and become more aware of the individual’s body language and nonverbal cues when discussing a serious situation or one in which there is no clear process.

Are you unsure as to your predominant style? Take the Cultural Context Inventory to find out. You can use the PDF or online form to auto calculate your results.

Bringing it all together

The Cultural Context Inventory by Claire Halverson helped me understand how I am able to bounce between Low and High Context communication. With a score of a 35/33 High/Low Context, I am able to communicate with an indirect employee and help a computer programmer understand what process steps were missed. 

It probably doesn’t hurt that I spent 2 years in Japan working within a high- context culture and trained in the military where low-context communication is the communication style.

In no way does this define who we are, but it helps us understand a little better how our preferences can shape our leadership. By understanding a little more about ourselves and those around us, we are becoming better leaders.

What are your Cultural Context Inventory results and how do you plan on using the results? Share in comments!

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