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How to prevent culture clash with clear communication

Culture clash is a conflict between ways of working or communicating within your organization. Clashes can happen along gender lines, generational lines, among different departments -- the opportunities for conflict, unfortunately, are endless.
6 min read

Claire Whelan

Culture Clash - How to prevent culture clash with clear communication

Even if you’re not sure how to define culture clash, you’ll know it when you see it. Maybe some team members don’t trust their remote-working colleagues to stay productive. Or perhaps staff feel unmotivated because management rarely tells them about the latest company news. If you need insights on how culture clashes arise and what you can do about them, read on.

What is culture clash?

Culture clash is a conflict between ways of working or communicating within your organization. Clashes can happen along gender lines, generational lines, among different departments — the opportunities for conflict, unfortunately, are endless.

If this sounds something like clashes in the wider society, that’s no coincidence. Company culture is a social order like any other. There are norms and accepted behaviors, often rooted in unstated beliefs that team members may not realize they hold.

For example, employees who were born in the digital age may have no trouble working productively from home. But team members who’ve always worked in a 9-to-5 office, complete with informal watercooler chats, may feel differently. These traditional workers might mistrust the whole concept of remote working, seeing it as an opportunity for laziness.

You can see how such culture clashes can scale up into big problems. What happens if company management thinks traditionally, and the whole software development team are digital natives? Developers may be hard to recruit, and culture clashes over work methods could make employee churn worse.

On the flip side, company culture can be a huge asset. As business professor Boris Groysberg wrote in Harvard Business Review, shrewd leaders who understand culture are using it to their advantage. “When properly aligned with personal values, drives, and needs, culture can unleash tremendous amounts of energy toward a shared purpose and foster an organization’s capacity to thrive,” he wrote. “Leading with culture may be among the few sources of sustainable competitive advantage left to companies today.”

Understand the basic types of company culture

Groysberg and his colleagues have defined eight types of organizational culture. These also apply to leadership styles. Do you recognize any of these? Similar kinds can co-exist in a single organization.

  1. Caring: this is a collaborative and welcoming work environment that focuses on mutual trust.
  2. Purpose: similar to the caring culture but with a stronger focus on contributing to a greater cause. Idealism and altruism are key characteristics.
  3. Learning: this culture is focused on innovation, exploration and creativity.
  4. Enjoyment: this is a lighthearted work culture where a sense of humor and spontaneity are key.
  5. Results: in this work culture, employees are focused on achievement. Winning is all important.
  6. Authority: this organizational culture is competitive and leaders reward decisiveness and boldness.
  7. Safety: in this work culture, employees are cautious of taking risks and the focus is on planning ahead.
  8. Order: this organizational culture is cooperative, and there is a focus on fitting in and playing by the rules.

What causes culture clash in organizations?

Let’s look at some common causes of culture clash. Not all of these may be relevant to your organization. However, all these sources of conflict can cause the same problems, like unmotivated staff, feelings of powerlessness, and mistrust.

Clash source: mergers and acquisitions

When it comes to mergers and acquisitions (M&As), beware of the risk of culture clash. Too often, mergers can be like a marriage of convenience instead of a love match. Perhaps the acquiring company was lagging in its industry and management saw the chance to buy a smaller rival. Or maybe a fast-growing company was running short on cash and agreed on the deal too quickly. Either way, a suitable match between cultures may not have been a top priority at the time of the merger.

Companies whose M&As are most successful have prioritized staff communication from the beginning. Research shows that 70 percent of all communications in most organizations are via informal channels like gossip and rumor. The possibility of joining forces with another company will encourage fear and uncertainty in any organization. Staff will value clear, unambiguous communication as soon as any hint of M&A is in the air. Being as forthright as possible will replace speculation with fact. This helps keep your people on track until management is certain about the next steps.

Clash source: career stage

It’s no secret that post-Covid, the so-called “great resignation” has seen a huge number of people change jobs. New research has revealed that one reason is culture clash. According to Hinge Research, one in five professionals are leaving their jobs because of a cultural mismatch with their bosses. Of those surveyed, 45% of senior executives were satisfied with their company’s culture. But just 17% of mid-career employees at the same organizations said they were happy.

Dr. Lee Frederickson, the leader of the study, urged management to look beyond salary as a way to retain staff. He said employees jump ship for other reasons: they don’t feel respected by peers or aren’t comfortable sharing ideas with leadership. “Company leadership should invest in making real, tangible improvements in communications and other processes so that mid-career professionals and senior executives are able to view the business from each other’s point of view,” he said. “Those improvements don’t require spending a lot of money.”

Clash source: cross-cultural communication

Companies based in one country may struggle with culture clash when they expand internationally. Joint ventures, outsourcing agreements, or hiring teams overseas all need careful planning. Are you aware that communication styles may differ between a US company and those in Japan or China? An informal email dashed off to colleagues in Japan, for example, may come across as rude or disrespectful. Conversely, China-headquartered TikTok struggled to keep staff in its London office, where employees were uncomfortable with the long hours management expected.

Beyond misunderstandings and resentments, problems in cross-cultural communication can cause real safety problems. One company discovered that safety information had been lost in translation, and safety violations shot up at an international site. The fix? The company introduced new graphical displays that showed safety procedures in a way anyone could understand.

How to prevent culture clash

It may be impossible to prevent culture clash altogether. But companies can lighten the impact if they anticipate problems and act when they occur.

Respect the culture of both parties in a merger

Is one company acquiring a much smaller rival? Even if the answer is yes, management must respect each partner equally. As Professor Groysberg advises, it’s good to identify the complementary strengths of each company. Then, management can decide on the new culture it wants in the combined company, based on business strategy. Leaders might decide innovation is a core value in the combined company, for example, if it needs to pioneer new products.

Listen and educate

Anonymous surveys are a useful means of figuring out how employees feel about company culture. Do they feel stifled? Do senior colleagues respect their ideas? Surveys may reveal a mismatch between senior and mid-career executives. This could indicate a need for education and training to tackle issues like unconscious bias. Or perhaps staff feel in the dark about what the company is achieving. That could highlight a need for a company newsletter, or a tool like Slack to encourage conversation.

Communicate effectively for a healthy company culture

We can’t emphasize enough that communication is vital in preventing culture clash. Remember that internal and external communications should be clear, consistent, and free from jargon if possible. Here are things to keep in mind about employee communications:

  • Be frequent and consistent in communications with your entire team
  • Provide cross-cultural training before international assignments
  • Publish your company news consistently. Items might include:
    • recent deals
    • upcoming events
    • customer news
    • employee achievements
    • reminders of company policy on areas that may be sources of tension (remote working, new technology tools, parental leave).
  • Ensure team members feel seen and heard with two-way communications

How can VT Writer help with culture clash?

If you’re not a natural communicator, you might worry about the idea of ramping up communications with your team. A tool like VT Writer, our language analysis platform, can boost your confidence and your consistency whenever you write. You’ll also find it a huge help as you develop your first style guide or update the one you have. VT Writer helps you with all these steps:

  • Create a clear communication strategy for both internal and external communications. Read more in our article about the benefits of a strong internal communication strategy. You’ll find tips on how to get started on listening to and reaching out to your team.
  • Create a style guide with the help of VT Writer. You communicate across a huge range of internal and external channels, from LinkedIn posts to company signage. VT Writer helps you enforce consistent style everywhere, so you speak with a predictable voice your audience trusts. See examples and learn more about creating a style guide here.
  • Objectively score content with VT Writer. When you use the platform, you’ll see easy-to-see readability scores and clear tips on how to improve your writing.
  • Eliminate long sentences, passive voice and complex language that could confuse readers. Many people have an instinct to use longer words and passive voice (“the meeting was attended by almost everyone”). VT Writer pinpoints these areas for improvement and lets you re-score your revised version. The result is clearer writing that’s to the point, so you minimize chances for misunderstanding.

Seize the benefits of an engaged workforce

When your company communications are clear, consistent and two-way, you can prevent or at least minimize problems with culture clash. The benefits include a more engaged workforce who are also more productive because everyone’s working together toward company goals.