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Cultural Communication and the Small Business

By Yvonne Barber and Manny Sicre, CMA
October 1, 2021

Understanding the language and culture of your organization is a prerequisite to business success.

 

Within a small organization, it’s quite common for team members to wear multiple hats. One of the biggest challenges we face as financial leaders of small businesses can be the degree of close collaboration among cross-functional teams. Translating complex financial concepts to team members who aren’t trained in accounting or finance terminology can be tough. Good communication is critical for developing a unified leadership team working toward the same goals.

 

It’s important to find ways to bridge any barriers that exist. When you take the time to develop cross-functional skills that facilitate communication, you can help your team deliver better results and meet any organizational goals. By being the type of small-business leader who promotes open communication, you help your team feel connected and unified by shared goals.

 

WHERE TO START

 

When we set out to bridge communication gaps, there are a few questions to ask: What are the primary goals to be accomplished? How are we accomplishing those intended goals? What is our organizational culture? Does senior management encourage an open style of communication? What are we trying to realize through our communication channels?

 

When leading a team of professionals within a department in a small business, you may have shared values, similar priorities, and a common language that make things easier. When you’re working with a cross-functional team, though, you’ll need to work harder to develop good, inclusive communication. Professionals across different teams often have common terminology used within their department, and some of the words or phrases used might be very similar to those used in another department yet have subtle or very different meanings.

 

A key ingredient to being a good communicator is a high degree of empathy. The definition of empathy is straightforward: Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand how other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it’s putting yourself in someone else’s position and understanding what they must be feeling.

 

UNDERSTANDING THE OBSTACLES

 

Given today’s global economy and the increased diversity of various workplaces, communication sensitivity from a cultural perspective has gained tremendous importance. We need to recognize and appreciate the dynamics of communication across cultures and be cognizant that another person’s cultural, economic, and financial backgrounds have a significant impact on their method of communication. There are three main issues identified as the root of intercultural miscommunication:

 

Language as a barrier. Approaching challenges of this nature, the key is to put forth the effort to demonstrate your willingness to communicate with colleagues using the language and technology that they understand and work with.

 

Cultural and departmental diversity. Begin by developing a working knowledge of all areas of the business and discover the specific priorities of each department and the metrics that might be important to them. Take the time to understand both commonalities and differences so that you aren’t using terms in a way that might confuse the communication process. Many of the metrics that may be important outside of the accounting or finance department may seem to have nothing to do with the financial ratios that are used by accounting or finance professionals, so you will need to find a way to “connect the dots” so that everyone on the team understands how their piece fits into the overall strategy for reaching the organizational goals.

 

Learn to be open-minded and aware of the differences among team members. One of the advantages of cross-functional teams is the innovation that can come from the diversity of members. When you create a culture of equity and inclusion, you’re more likely to develop the trust that’s needed for a successful team. This culture of acceptance will also encourage healthy conflict that will inspire innovative solutions.

 

Ethnocentrism. Respect for and awareness of other cultures and their respective cultural codes are critical to effective intercultural communication. According to Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the absence of trust is one of the primary conditions that can cause teams to fail. Good communication builds trust, improving the team’s ability to problem-solve and resolve conflict.

 

By establishing trust, a fear of conflict can also be addressed. Healthy and respectful debate within a cross-functional team can produce innovative solutions to problems or obstacles the organization may face. When you develop an environment of trust and healthy debate, your team can unite and commit to reaching common goals that are specific and clearly communicated. You will need to foster an attitude of mutual respect to achieve this. Cross-functional teams are often derailed because members don’t appreciate or respect the tasks or responsibilities of members outside of their department.

 

A SMALL BUSINESS ESSENTIAL

 

There are some key differences in communicating within small and midsize organizations and large organizations. As a rule, communication in a larger organization becomes less frequent, with a greater reliance on memos, network communication, instant messaging, emails, and morning meetings. But if you’re looking at communication within a small to midsize company, strong communication becomes even more critical. Given fewer employees and smaller facilities, lack of communication can lead to gossip and rumors, which may have a significant negative impact on employees’ morale.

 

As a team, small business leaders need to hold one another accountable for results and work together to overcome any challenges. This means that everyone needs to be willing to ask for help or resources when needed. As a leader, the difference between success and failure can often be traced to a willingness or unwillingness to admit vulnerabilities and ask for help when the success of the team requires it.

 

You will also need to examine existing team dynamics when developing a plan to foster good cross-functional communication and collaboration. In addition to differences between departments that might contribute to cross-functional challenges, individual personalities and behaviors can strongly influence the success of a team. Being vigilant about blocking personalities who are either overly outspoken and dominant or relentlessly negative is key to preserving space for valuable ideas.

 

Once you have taken the time to learn about the team and the individual departmental priorities and developed a healthy collaboration style, you will have laid the foundation for good communication. When you understand the language and the culture of your audience or team, you’re in a better position to draw parallels to concepts they will appreciate when discussing complex accounting concepts.

 

Yvonne Barber is a fractional CFO/controller, small business specialist, and a member of IMA’s Atlanta Chapter. She can be reached at vonnie.barber@gmail.com.
Manny Sicre, CMA, is a full-time lecturer at the University of Miami, Coral Gable campus. He’s also a member of IMA’s Small Business Committee. He can be reached at msicre@bus.miami.edu.
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