So you want to talk to the CEO…

How to cultivate the culture and candor of speaking up in a culturally diverse workplace?

“My biggest worry revolves around leading cultural and behavioral change in societies that have typically been more hierarchical in nature…” — Jane Fraser, CEO of Citigroup Latin America

Cultural diversity has been shown to be a driver of innovation. But for today’s global workplace, it takes intentionality and awareness to cultivate an environment where people from different cultures would feel empower to interact openly. A case in point — the concept of “speaking up” takes on a variety of connotations and forms across different cultures.

Source: East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait by Yang Liu (

In Western culture, “speaking up” may mean being vocal and assertive in sharing own perspectives in groups. In an egalitarian culture, this form of “speaking up” is perceived positively and is a way in which employees feel included to express their views and opinions. It conveys to employees that their input is valued. Organizational research has found that employees in a “speak up” corporate culture are 3.5 times more likely to contribute their full innovative potential.

But in cultures where the notion of hierarchy is more defined and ingrained, “speaking up” to superiors in group settings may be deemed to be disrespectful or a breach of social norms. Particularly, children are taught in some cultures to remain silent in the presence of authority figures, and speak only when spoken to. In these situations, those who grew up in deferential cultures may be called to step outside their “cultural comfort zones” (some academics called it “liability of deference”) to interact with seniors in less hierarchical cultures.

It felt very uncomfortable and artificial to be expected to participate in an informal conversation with this senior person. Thoughts going through my head were, “What can I possibly have to say to this man who has much more experience than I do?” The values that were instilled in me were to “speak when spoken to” and “children are to be seen and not heard.” — Former MBA Students from Nigeria

There are two sides of the coin in addressing this issue:

  1. How can organizations (and leaders of organizations) lessen the discomfort experienced by employees from different cultures in expressing their views?
  2. How to provide tools to empower individuals to prepare for such conversations and lessen the discomfort?

What Can Organizations (and Leaders of Organizations) Do?

Be aware of differences in cultural assumptions and undertones

The first step may be to learn and educate ourselves about these differences. Keep an open mind, slow down and ask questions. Be emphatic and learn to step into the shoes of those from other cultures in understanding these differences.

Be clear about the objectives and clarify the meaning of “speaking up”

The key objective of cultivating a culture of “speaking up” often involves creating a healthy inclusive and collaborative environment for employees to openly contribute their ideas and hear diverse voices to drive growth and innovation. In this way, “speaking up” may take many forms including verbal or written feedback, one-on-one meetings to small group discussions, in-person or online forums. It’s helpful to provide a variety of channels for providing feedback and facilitating discussions across different levels of the organization. For example, in Asian culture, employees may prefer to speak with superiors in one-on-one in private settings or find other channels of communication to share their opinions. Hence “speaking up” does not solely confine to providing direct verbal input to senior management in a group setting.

Provide lead time

Spontaneous response may be very intimidating for non-native speakers and also for more reserved cultures. Imagine a scenario whereby you work in an environment that communicates in your non-native tongue, your thought process may involve first translating conversations back into your native tongue to process the information, then constructing a response, and finally translating it back into English. Providing some lead time for response and internal processing may be helpful for a diverse group composed of individuals from multiple cultural origins and different native languages.

Be explicit about expectations

Alignment on expectations is important in both form and degree of completeness. Be clear by when, from whom, and how you would like to receive feedback. For example, “I need to hear back from everyone before tomorrow 5pm. You can either offer your input at our meeting tomorrow, by talking with me one-on-one, or by sending me an email. The feedback does not need to be complete — I just want to hear your initial ideas and it’s ok if they are half-baked.”

Create a “safe space” without retribution

Leaders are responsible for creating a “safe space” where anyone can raise issues without consequences. But research has shown that leaders often undermine their own efforts. Studies have found that leaders often react negatively to employees who challenge them even in a constructive manner. Hence for managers to avoid these pitfalls, it may be helpful to tune in and regulate emotions especially when feeling threatened by something an employee says. Try to reframe the employee’s comment in a direct and constructive way. Identify and continuously reinforce a shared group goal. Use humor to diffuse a potentially charged situation. Provide a balanced perspective; and state viewpoints objectively. In the end, it requires emotional and cultural intelligence to cultivate an open dialogue across cultures.

What Can Individuals Do?

Speaking up Cross-Culturally often takes Discernment, Intentionality, and Confidence

Just as there are many channels that organizations can choose to solicit input, an individual may also choose the appropriate timing, setting, and approach to provide feedback (or speaking up). It takes discernment to determine what is appropriate given the cultural context, the objectives, as well as the personalities and business objectives of the stakeholders and decision-makers.

Clarity of objective

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

  • Do you want to share a business idea?
  • Do you want to ask for a promotion or a raise?
  • Do you want to elevate a business or organization problem?
  • Or, do you just want to be more engaged in team meetings and contribute more?

Being clear about your objectives will help to determine to whom, when, where and how you should broach the subject.

Understanding your audience / decision-maker

Who’s the ultimate key audience/decision-maker? For example, if you want to elevate a business problem to senior management, who will make the call and be able to take action to address the problem?

  • 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? How could you connect your business problem/issues with his/her business concerns/goals or broader organizational concerns?

Cultural context and dynamics

What is the cultural context of the organization? 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 is the appropriate level of engagement for the specific topic of discussion? 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?

These considerations will help you to determine the appropriate communication approach, audience, timing, and the setting to bring up your topic.

Other considerations

  • Find help and support from others: Seeking support from peers or other senior stakeholders may help the decision-maker or relevant stakeholders more receptive to your ideas. If you are trying to approach a C-level executive, how would you map out a path to him/her? Along the way, whom you would need to get support from?
  • If you feel uncomfortable to raise an issue to your boss directly, perhaps do a pulse check and find out on how others feel about the issue. Start by talking with other colleagues about it and find constructive solutions. Then go to the boss as a team not only to bring up the problem but also to propose potential solutions and test his openness to them. 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.
  • Similarly for group meetings, pre-meeting preparation is often critical — pre-alignment with stakeholders (especially more senior colleagues) to understand their perspectives and garner support beforehand.
  • During the delivery, be aware of your body language to show openness and confidence. For example to boost your confidence, try visualizing how you could speak up effectively or try recalling a time when you spoke up with a positive result. Focus on what happened, how you felt and what the experience was like. Replay the situation in your mind will help you to relax, be focused, and emulate confidence. Perhaps try the “power poses” advocated by Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor who is famous for a TED Talk on this topic. She and her co-authors have claimed that power posing (Wonder Woman posing with legs apart and hands on her hips) could elevate testosterone, decrease cortisol, and increase feelings of power and tolerance for risk.
  • Practice and seek feedback: 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. Training and education should also follow accordingly.

Regardless of where you sit in the organization, the key is that everyone has a part in increasing candor and flow of communication. Cross-cultural differences add an additional layer of complexity and sensitivity. With awareness and open-mindedness, a diverse and inclusive workplace could drive growth and innovation, leading to more opportunities for learning and greater variety in viewpoints as we interact with others from different cultural backgrounds and countries of origins.