The High and Low Context Leadership Gap

Ricardo González

Ricardo González

Founder and CEO of Bilingual America | Author | Speaker

When low-context leaders are called upon to lead a high-context workforce, significant challenges are created for both groups of people.

The fact is that most leaders are quite low-context, and much of our workforce today is becoming more and more high-context.

This creates a significant gap between leadership and the general workforce.

To begin to understand this, we must first understand the major drivers of both low and high-context cultures. Take a look below for the main drivers of people in each culture.

Low Context

  1. Results are more important than relationships.
  2. Change is more important than tradition.
  3. Sense of self-worth and identity is achieved through individual accomplishment.

High Context

  1. Relationships are more important than results.
  2. Tradition is more important than change.
  3. Sense of self-worth and identity is achieved through group validation.

Let’s make a few important applications. 

First, high-context people need more engagement and human connection. Most low-context leaders, although many are friendly, won’t, or simply don’t, take the time with people to develop those relationships as they are focused on getting results. They also have a tendency to view people as pieces to a bigger business puzzle, thus further dehumanizing them, at least in the thinking of the high-context person. Leaders must be mindful of making more human connection if they are going to be successful with high-context people.

Second, leaders are conditioned to think that change must be constant in order to stay up with competitors. However, if too much change is instituted too quickly, it will cause the high-context person who resists change, to lose trust in leadership. Low-context leaders need to spend more time explaining to a high-context workforce the need for new processes and approaches or they will erode trust. High-context people coming from countries where corruption is high, are also extremely sensitive to rapid change without explanation as it causes them to wonder what leadership is up to and what will happen to them in the process.

Third, many low-context leaders implement a system of individual awards to motivate people. This is especially true in the sales environment. But high-context people aren’t motivated by individual awards that separate them from the group that is giving them a sense of purpose and meaning. This is why bonus systems among high-context people should award the group, not the individual.

There are many more applications we could make regarding the gap between low-context leaders and high-context associates. I hope that the ones given will cause you to think more deeply about your own leadership and how you are connecting — or not — with your associates.

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