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Why do Most Low Context Leaders Fail at Leading Multicultural Teams?

Leadership is as important a role as any in the workforce. Great leaders can drive productivity and push their coworkers and employees to learn more and push themselves to accomplish great feats. But when there is a disconnect in culture between a leader and their team, friction can cause dips or stalls in productivity.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall is known for developing the concept of Proxemics which can be defined as the study of human use of space and the effects populations density has on behavior, communication, and social interaction. From his studies, comes the concept of “Low Context” and “High Context” people. Each of these “contexts” tries to explain how people relate to each other and communicate—how people treat another’s time and space and how they may learn from each other.


Many leaders in Western cultures are considered low context. This means the focus is driven more by change and individual accomplishment. Low context leaders find that a more structured and straightforward approach is better for how they conduct business. These types of leaders are very direct and will say exactly what they mean or what they expect of an outcome as opposed to High Context leaders.

High context leaders are more focused on trust and garnering relationships, as well as a sense of group validation. High contrast leaders find that traditional ways of building relations work better for them when conducting business. These types of leaders may communicate more by nonverbal cues that others interpret. This may also include circumstances surrounding the interactions meaning these types of leaders require more engagement.


What happens if a low context business associate attempted to conduct business with one of high context but didn’t take the time to learn other ways to communicate? The low context associate might see those of high context as unmotivated or as lazy, meanwhile, they are just trying to build trust in the relationship. On the other hand, if a high associate business person did not understand how low context associates conduct their business, they might see low context associates as brash and rude, meanwhile, they might only have a one-track-mind for their business.

The trouble here lies when these types of cultures do not understand one another.

This is why low context leaders often fail at leading multicultural teams.

One reason these types of leaders often fail is that they don’t take the time to understand how they themselves communicate. They may believe what they are saying makes perfect sense, only for team members or associates to misunderstand. Do not make assumptions about what is understood. Promote the exchange of conversation and allow for questions between associates and team members.

Another reason low context leaders fail is that they fail to take the time to get to know who they are leading. Each team member is an individual person with different experiences and qualifications, hired to be an asset. Do not dehumanize your team, focus more on how to help the individual and build a foundation with them. Learn how they communicate and try to build a rapport with them. Learn what they do best and how their skills can drive production to better suit set goals. This is another instance in which exchanges of conversations and questions can be beneficial.

Low context leaders can also fail when they lose the trust of their team members. High context workers often prefer traditional or more consistent processes. If there is too much change or if the change is instated too quickly that might erode trust they might have in leadership. As a low context leader, try to spend more time working with your team members through changes and explaining why new processes or procedures are necessary. This helps maintain rapport and can allow team members to feel like they are cared for within the team.

Lastly, low context leaders would also do well to remember that individual reward systems would not do well to motivate high context workers. High context workers care more for the success of the group, to give them a sense of meaning or purpose. Think about awarding the group or team versus individual people.


While there are nuances to these types of communications there is no harm in becoming more aware of the different styles to adapt your way of communicating to have the most effective interaction.

I have spent a lifetime understanding cultures and how they operate at many levels to excel at sales and leadership. Today I help others do the same by speaking with organizations and leaders to enhance their cultural mastery in the new global economy. It is my life’s goal to live in a world where people from all different cultural backgrounds are valued, appreciated, and understood. Join my movement to promote ethical, inclusive leadership, harmony, and respect that drive productivity, creativity, and performance to its highest level. Schedule a consultation today!

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