Immigrants to the U.S. or children of immigrants have played an important role over the past 10 years in starting and leading global companies, including ~40% of Fortune 500 companies and ~20% of the Inc. 500 companies. For example, Andy Gove (one of the founders of Intel) fled Hungary when he was 20 and moved to the US. Steve Job was the son of a Syrian immigrant. Dara Khosrowshahi (Uber’s new CEO and former Expedia CEO) came to the US when he was nine years old, as his family fled Iran.  Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla) grew up in South Africa and moved to Canada when he was 17.

Conversely, foreign companies are tapping executives from the U.S. Hugo Barra (a Brazilian native) left Google and the Silicon Valley to work at Xiaomi between 2013 and early 2017. Similarly, Baidu (the Chinese search engine) poached Andrew Ng from Google to head its AI research team between 2014 and Q1 2017. 

We are increasingly working in a global and culturally diverse workplace, that requires us to be savvy in navigating different cultural landscapes and perspectives. If you have an opportunity to share your business ideas to a group of senior executives, they will likely come from different geographies and cultural origins.  

How can we become more skilled and equipped in speaking up in cross-cultural settings? 

Speaking up cross-culturally often requires self-awareness, discernment, intentionality, and keen observation.

1. Self-awareness and cultural awareness

The first step is to gain self-awareness and educate ourselves about differences in potential cultural assumptions and undertones. Keep an open mind, slow down, observe, and ask questions.  

  • What is the cultural context of the stakeholders?
  • Do they prefer a hierarchical and formal style of communication or a more causal and non-hierarchical approach?
  • What are my own cultural biases and assumptions that may color my communication approach / style? 

2. Clarity of objective

What would you like to communicate and what would you like to achieve from that communication?

  • Do you want to propose a business idea?
  • Do you want to ask for a promotion or a raise?
  • Do you want to elevate a business or organization problem?

Being clear about your objectives will help to determine to whom, when, where and how you should broach the subject. You can be intentional in choosing the appropriate timing, setting, and approach to provide feedback (or speak up), while accounting for the cultural context of the organization and stakeholders.

  • Are there cultural or organizational sensitivities that would make it more appropriate to discuss it in an one-on-one setting rather in a large group?

3. Discernment and understanding your audience / decision-maker

  • Who’s the ultimate key audience/decision-maker? 
  • What is top of mind for the decision-maker and other stakeholders
  • What do they care about? What are their business objectives/priorities?
  • How could you communicate in a way that is relevant for him/her? 

4. Intentionality in finding help and support from others

Seeking support from peers or other senior stakeholders may help the decision-maker or relevant stakeholders to be more receptive to your ideas. 

If you work in a hierarchical culture, it’ll be important to find advocates amongst your seniors/managers to come alongside and support you. If you work cross-culturally, it’ll be helpful to do a pulse check and find out on how others feel about the issue. Research has found that it’s common for individuals to seek advice and do a “sniff test” with co-workers when trying to speak up to their boss. In fact, many respondents share that they would seek out support from their trusted, “higher-status” co-workers to voice up concerns.

5. Awareness of your non-verbal cues and body language 

The definition and standard for appropriate body postures differs across culture. For example, maintaining eye contact may be a norm in Western culture but holding constant eye contact with authority figures may be interpreted as rude or defiant in other cultures. In these situations, it will be important to mirror and observe body language and nonverbal cues of those around you. Stay in the moment and listen. Be alert to the body language and changes in nonverbal cues of your audience; then adapt accordingly. 

6. Establishing credibility: Stay credible — leverage your expertise, be organized, structured, succinct, to the point; don’t become overly verbose just to fill silence. Practice and hone your communication skills. Seek for feedback from colleagues, mentors or a coach. 

Effective upward communication require discernment to determine what is appropriate given the objectives, the cultural context, as well as the personalities and business objectives of the stakeholders. Ultimately, a culturally diverse and inclusive workplace drive innovation and holds many valuable opportunities for growth and learning.