Communication Currents

Cultural competence, cultural values, and emerging communication paradoxes

December 1, 2012
Organizational Communication

To meet the challenges of today’s highly interconnected and mediated environment, effective organizational communication is grounded in ”cultural competence,” the ability to address divergent norms, varying communicative expectations, and the languages of various stakeholder groups. But that is not enough. Our case study of a multinational corporation’s communication with diverse stakeholder groups illustrates the ways in which contradictions embedded in today's rapidly changing global context may lead to communication paradoxes: communication practices conflicting with each other, negating organizational goals and producing unintended consequences. 

Responding to a national strategy to develop and extend renewable energy, a multinational energy corporation proposed to develop an existing hydropower plant in a Swedish community. The MNC proposal generated large-scale interest and resistance across multiple stakeholders at the local, regional, national, and global levels. Given this extensive attention, the local politicians decided to settle the development issue in a referendum in which community residents would determine the outcome. This was a new procedure; typically the decision was made by politicians. In response, the MNC carefully designed a communication strategy characterized by openness, transparency and dialogue. The organization believed this strategy would not only inform stakeholders of the benefits of the project, but also create organizational legitimacy and good faith among the diverse stakeholder groups and result in a majority affirmative vote for the development of the hydropower plant.

Recognizing their communication strategy represented a potentially powerful new way of communicating competently with stakeholders, the MNC invited researchers to study the design and implementation of the communication strategy and activities in order to create a learning opportunity for future multi-sector interactions. We observed steering committee meetings and communication committee meetings, and interviewed communication managers responsible for the communication campaign and involved with information to the public up to the time the referendum took place. The referendum was defeated, and accordingly, the hydropower project was not pursued.

Features of Cultural Competence

Cultural competence refers to the sensitivity of an organization to societal and cultural changes and tensions, and its subsequent ability to transfer this knowledge into meaningful business practices. To be culturally competent, organizations need to engage in multi-stakeholder dialogue in order to understand the changing values and preferences of stakeholders.Furthermore, it is essential that organizations recognize and utilize culturally determined positions of expertise and knowledge. In other words, organizations must be sensitive to which agents are perceived as holders of “truth” and which agents are considered to be providing “inauthentic information.” MNCs typically embrace logics of rationality and ”hard facts” and utilize spokespersons with scientific expertise. However, in today's environment they must also be able to interact within the logics of expression and “personal feelings” often employed by NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and other stakeholder groups. These practices are expected to facilitate the ability to create and maintain trust and credibility among various cultural actors within the community at large, especially difficult in times of flux and economic challenge.

Paradoxes of Communication

Our analyses suggested the communication strategy and activities of the MNC and communication professionals embraced important aspects of cultural competence. But we also identified communication paradoxes that produced de-legitimizing and ineffective communication. Contradictions inherent in the changing institutional environment were seen to underlie several communication paradoxes that arose between the hydropower company and different stakeholder groups, including politicians, environmentalists and river residents in the municipality.

First we found a communicative paradox of “inefficient efficiency.” The MNC explicitly acknowledged conformity to the new demands of the environment would increase rewards, but such activities implicitly conflicted with institutional norms regarding technical activities and efficiency. Although it was recognized by the MNC that dialogue with ALL the river residents was essential, meetings with many of these groups were canceled. The MNC believed it would be a waste of time to engage all groups in dialogue, given these groups had already decided to vote NO and such events would therefore be futile. Squandering time and resources was antithetical to deeply embedded efficiency values of the MNC, and although many expressed frustration they had to make such a decision, it enabled them to operate comfortably within a previously established zone of efficiency.

Second we identified the communicative paradox: “Adherence to democratic principles stifles dialogue.” Although key communication objectives were dialogue, trust, and commitment, another strategic decision was made to refrain from developing or commenting on community weblogs or online letters to the editor. Swedish institutional norms suggest it is inappropriate for the very powerful (both in terms of resources and political clout) to dominate conversations and decision processes of the less powerful. It was more culturally acceptable for the MNC to just put out the facts and let the community discuss them amongst themselves. The MNC therefore silenced their own voice on the very channels that would enable dialogue with diverse stakeholders. As frustrating as this silencing was, there was implicit agreement the MNC did not want to be perceived as interfering in the local opinion/decision making process.  

A third communication paradox “equality enacts inequality,” arose from the awareness that: a) cultural differences existed, b) the differences needed to be addressed, and c) there was a Swedish value to treat everyone equally. Reflecting the strong egalitarian values of Swedish history and culture, MNC communication professionals decided to have all stakeholders receive the same information, designing materials and meetings in similar ways. By providing the same information at the same time, the blanket strategy was designed to forestall complaints regarding inequity, manipulation, insufficient notification, or unfair dissemination of information. Thus not adapting messages to cultural preferences and values became a culturally aware and sensitive choice, although the outcome was that stakeholders who had different levels of interest or knowledge were not only NOT receiving the type of information they actually wanted or needed but were alienated by the lack of communicative accommodation.

Attending to paradox

Our study suggests that the communicative features of cultural competence do not exist within a vacuum but rather are strongly influenced by the interplay of the micro and macro contexts within which they take place. Communication professionals need to increase their awareness of contradictory pressures within the environment, identify how these tensions influence communicative decision making, and find ways to manage these emergent paradoxes. Organizations need to embrace the diverse and conflicting cultural norms and values embedded within institutional change and the complexity of what it means to be culturally competent. In this case, communication experts were not prepared, and lacked an effective plan for action and reflection on contradictions. It is critical such a plan has the ability to bring to the fore values that may be so deeply embedded they are taken for granted and not accounted for in designing competency strategy. 

About the author (s)

Catrin Johansson

Mid Sweden University

Associate Professor

Cynthia Stohl

University of California, Santa Barbara