Understanding High-Context and Low-Context Cultures

How can understanding cultural context help you engage employees?

Summary
Transcript

In this video, Ricardo González, founder and CEO of Bilingual America, talks about high-context and low-context cultures and three key differences between them. He explains that understanding this culture characteristic is critical for effective leadership.

 

To illustrate this concept, Ricardo discusses Latin America as a high-context culture; for example, it is relationally driven, and tradition is valued over change. By contrast, Ricardo explains that the United States is a low-context or task-driven culture, where change is valued over tradition. 

So what does this mean for leadership?

 

Ricardo explains, “If you're working, say, with Latinos or people in high-context cultures and you make quick changes, it will scare them. It will create insecurity in them.”  But if leaders recognize this cultural difference and put a change management process in place that takes into account a culture’s resistance to change, the change is more likely to get support and an effective outcome.

 

Another key difference between high-- and low-context cultures is where a culture places self-identity. Ricardo says, “In high-context cultures, self-identity is achieved through the group; the group matters. In a low-context culture, I get my sense of self-worth through individual achievement. So that's why [people from low-context cultures] like medals and trophies and employee-of-the-month parking spot.”  

 

Watch Ricardo’s video to get a full understanding of high-context and low-context cultures -- and how to lead teams of people from both.  For more insights on cultural mastery, check out all of Ricardo’s Leadercast Now videos.

To me, the understanding of high- and low-context cultures is a base skill for leaders. I think it is a critical skill for leaders to understand this, especially, for example, and again my specific expertise is working with the Latino culture and non-Latino culture, although we work in other areas, but that's the skill of my company. And so, for example, the Latino culture in its mainstream is very high-context. The American culture in its mainstream is what's considered low-context. Well, what does that mean, right?

So a high-context culture, it's very relationship driven. It's one of the reasons that Latinos aren't that concerned about time because it takes time to develop relationships.

A low-context culture is very task driven. "Get 'er done," you know, Larry the Cable Guy, right?

So here's a real conflict for leaders. Leaders in the American culture are coming out of a very low-context culture. They're very task/process driven, and now they're being asked to lead people, and that's not intuitive to them because they're really not high-context. So you're dealing with high-context people who need the relationship. They need the pat on the back. They need to feel the love, you know.

So that's one thing, and then the second thing is that, in a high-context culture, tradition is valued over change. In a low-context culture, change is valued over tradition.

So look how quickly the United States is changing, and even in our business mantras -- speed. Speed to market, respond quickly. Everything is about speed.

So Latin America doesn't change that quickly because tradition is valued over that change. So, in leadership, if you're working, say, with Latinos or people in high-context cultures and you make quick changes, it will scare them. It will create insecurity in them. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," and you may see turnover based on this and you don't even know why it's happening. So it's a critical skill to understand these things.

The third thing, I think, is really the most important thing as it relates to high- and low-context cultures, and that is that high-context cultures, self-identity is achieved through the group. The group matters. My sense of self-worth comes through my extended relationships with the group. The group may be family, it may be a fellow- countryman, and so on and so forth.

In a low-context culture, I get my sense of self-worth through individual achievement. So that's why I like medals and I like trophies and I like employee-of-the-month parking spot. But that goes against the high-context culture. So that's a very important thing for leaders to understand.
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Ricardo González

Ricardo González is the founder and CEO of Bilingual America, a nationally respected cultural and language training institute established in 1992. He is the developer of several corporate training courses including Success with Hispan...

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