This is probably one of the most common things we say to executives when coaching them. It’s shorthand for “make sure that others have the context you have for the decisions you make and the actions you take.” Making your thinking about things more explicit to others helps them better understand what’s important to you and your rationale. It connects the dots, so to speak, ensuring that our actions are overtly connected to what we say is important (strategically and culturally), and helping others develop a way of thinking that encourages more of the self-supervising behavior you want to see.
And yet, every culture has things that are just inherently implicit in it—things that no one thinks need to be said. In her book, The Culture Map, Erin Meyer describes global cultures as ranging from “high-context” or “low-context” in their communication style:
While The Culture Map is all about global cultural differences, these distinctions can also fit inside of organizational cultures. Organizations have ‘low context’ elements of their culture (clearly articulated and repeated) and other ‘high context’ elements (implied but dependent on context to be understood).
Low context elements are explicit and don’t require as much context to understand – think of the safety briefing you get when you take a flight. It’s clear, easy to understand, and it’s the same every time you fly. In an organization, anywhere there are outlined rules and procedures (especially written) you’re seeing low context elements.
High context elements, on the other hand, depend on context. Robin’s first job out of college was as an engineer at a manufacturing plant. Timeliness was extremely important. Meetings started exactly on time. You were expected to be in the office exactly on time. No one said this out loud, but you noticed it in people’s actions. The employee cafeteria had glass windows that looked out at the employee entrance and on more than one occasion, Robin remembers seeing people checking their watches as she scurried into the building. Timeliness wasn’t an explicit expectation. No one talked about it and it wasn’t in the company values or highlighted in employee orientation. It was just assumed.
We notice that high-context organizational cultural elements are often tied to things that matter deeply. In manufacturing, “time is money.” Every minute that a piece of equipment is down or out of production costs the company real dollars and possibly impacts the ability to meet customer demands. Being on time for everything is a reflection of that importance.
We also notice that how you do one thing tends to be how you do everything. In other words, an action tied to deeply held beliefs in one situation can have unintended consequences in another. If the manufacturing plant suddenly needs to prioritize innovation, what might happen? The emphasis on timeliness that supported efficiency could just as easily stifle research efforts. In a world with rapidly shifting circumstances, smart organizations re-examine their high-context assumptions.
Now consider the impact of high context elements on team cohesion and belonging. Team members who work closely together can develop a type of shorthand. Often this apparent “mind-reading” can be helpful and can even occur as a state of flow within the group. The risk is, that high-context behaviors and mindsets aren’t covered in a training manual. Depending on the degree of high context behaviors and the amount of support employees have during onboarding, it’s not a surprise that new members of closely-knit teams can experience steeper learning curves.
While this can help existing team members move quickly together, it can leave new team members feeling excluded, or like the team is difficult to join. What could be misread as a lack of “culture fit” could more likely be due to a lack of context for the newcomer. This dynamic can also create tensions between cross-functional team members, making collaboration much harder than it needs to be.
Employees make connections and assign meaning to every aspect of leadership and organizational culture, spoken and unspoken. What are the high-context elements of your organization? And what do they tell you about what you value? Are they true to your current values, or are they unexamined habits?