Giving clear instruction across cultures
Good interpersonal communication is undeniably one of the pillars for establishing an effective shipboard team. Through good communication, the shipboard team is able to pass on critical safety instructions for carrying out the various jobs on board. While instructions for most routine jobs can be based on written or standard instructions, face-to-face or personalised instructions are still very valuable to ensure that everything will be conveyed clearly and in a clarified manner on the spot.
Safety Delta, a tool developed by Green-Jakobsen for building a proactive and reliable safety culture has been in the market for the last two years. Our pioneer clients have gone through several cycles of Safety Delta. From these cycles come the Crew Safety Diagnosis (CSD) reports showing common patterns and trends about their perception on different safety areas and behaviours across all participating vessels.
|Most seafarer respondents perceive that their leaders have some challenges in giving clear instructions|
One of the significant findings is that most seafarer respondents perceive that their leaders have some challenges in giving clear instructions. We believe it is important to dig deeper into this trend and reflect on the underlying issues: What are the reasons why they think leaders are not good at giving clear instructions? Is it a matter of misaligned assumptions and expectations? Does it have to do with cultural factors?
What is clear instruction?
Before going through these factors, let us first define what are clear instructions. Here are the most prominent descriptions that the seafarers gave us during informal interviews:
“When giving a job instruction, it is important to be clear. For example, when we do maintenance work on dismantling of pumps, we need to explain step by step to avoid mistakes. It is also important that you explain the task on site if possible.”
“What I do sometimes is make drawings, or demonstrate or take a piece of paper to give to bosun or AB so that he understands my instructions better.”
“For me, it is important that when you give instructions you know how to do. Because if your men will ask, you can answer their questions. And I will not be somebody who just pass on the instruction.”
Overall, there is no reason for us to contradict any of these definitions. In fact, these are spot-on descriptions that accurately describe clear instructions. Let us simply not forget that clear instructions are measured by the successful completion of a job based on the specifications. If this is not achieved, then the instruction is unclear or misunderstood somehow.
In the rest of the article, we have attempted to lay down the cultural considerations and practical reminders when giving instructions. Be aware of this trap: One may be an excellent communicator when dealing with people from the same or a homogeneous culture, but what works in one culture may not be effective in others. Also, please note that these practical reminders may seem too trivial, but there is no harm in giving these ‘often overlooked’ practicalities more importance than before. After all, leaders can reflect on these and make small adjustments to their ways of giving instructions to make them better safety leaders.
A ‘yes’ may actually mean ‘no’
These two cultural dimensions should be emphasised when talking about giving instructions across cultures – (a) low versus high power distance and (b) low versus high context communication cultures. First, let us deal with power distance.
High power distance cultures treat their leaders with high respect. What the leaders say are the rules that cannot be easily bent. This cultural tendency is evident in the Philippines, China, Japan, Singapore, India, Indonesia, and middle-eastern countries.
Subordinates from high power distance cultures have the tendency to avoid saying ‘No’ to their leaders, even if, for instance, the instructions given to them are unclear. They believe saying ‘No’ will make them look stupid. And this is a critical point for leaders to be aware of. When people from high power distance cultures say ‘Yes’, it is important for leaders or the giver of instructions to verify and make some follow-up questions to ensure correct understanding. Leaders may even ask their subordinates to restate the instructions to really ensure they have fully understood it.
Take note, however, that it is also challenging to motivate people from high power distance cultures to speak out. If they feel it is not safe to communicate or the level of trust between the leader and the subordinates has not matured yet, then they will simply keep quiet or give little response. In order to build trust, leaders can moderate their tone of voice, use friendlier gestures, and be more accommodating. When the subordinates already feel that it is safe to communicate because they trust their leaders, they become more open to asking questions. This will ensure that the instructions will be clarified and clearly understood.
In low power distance cultures such as Scandinavian countries, United States, United Kingdom, etc. subordinates are usually assertive enough to raise questions or concerns if they have some doubts on the given instructions.
Instructions should always be based on low-context communication
In high-context communication cultures, both the sender and receiver rely heavily on both conscious and unconscious assumptions, reference points, shared experiences, etc. to understand one another.
|In the context of safety this communication style is undesirable|
The receiver needs to use all the senses to pick up the message since the words used are ambiguous, indirect, or implied. The receiver needs to read between the lines and look for other cues such as the facial expression, body language and gestures of the person giving instructions. In the context of safety, this communication style is definitely undesirable because it opens a lot of gray areas that can be interpreted differently. Problems may arise if the receiver’s interpretations crossed the safe margin, and this may result into a near-miss, accident, or any unsafe situations.
Instructions should be expressed so that there is no room for varying interpretation – no hidden meanings. This is where low-context communication comes as an ideal model. It is characterised by precise, clear, explicit, and literal communication. When instructions are given this way, the receiver will find less or no ambiguity at all. In reply to questions, the leader will not hesitate to repeat the instructions and clarify the gray zones. And in case the receiver is from a high-context communication culture, it is important for leaders to clarify with the person that there is no need to read between the lines, just simply follow the instructions literally. It should be noted that clear language is not in opposition to open dialogue.
Below are some examples of converting ambiguous statements (high-context) into precise, clear, explicit and literal statements (low-context):
|High context||Low context|
|Keep the workshop tidy||After completing the job, secure all tools and throw the garbage in the proper bin|
|Partially open the ballast tank number 2P||Open the ballast tank number 2P, 50%|
|Give each crew member ice cream, just enough to crush their sweet cravings||Provide each crew member with 3 scoops of ice cream|
|Do not lift a heavy weight to avoid injury, otherwise call for help||Do not lift load more than 20 kgs alone. More than that, call someone to help you|
|When the visibility is about to deteriorate, call me||Call me when the visibility is reduced to 6 miles|
|Please ensure that the new crew members are familiarised accordingly||Please ensure that the new crew members are familiarised using Familiarisation Form 123|
Other reasons for miscommunication
On top of the cultural factors, there are a number of other reasons why the leaders’ instructions may not be clearly conveyed to or understood by the receiver.
One of the fundamental reasons is the language barrier where at least one of the parties is struggling in using the working language – English in most instances. It is also possible that the leader is very adept with the language, but the prominence of his/her native accent makes it difficult for the receiver to understand.
Making assumptions, for instance, saying unfamiliar acronyms or shortened phrases, or referring to indefinite measures of distance, time, height, etc. can open a lot of uncertainties to the receiver. If the latter is not assertive enough by way of clarifying things to make them clearer and specific, then the communication becomes ineffective.
It is also worth mentioning that receivers of instructions vary in terms of technical competence. More than the language factor, even those with good command of the working language may misinterpret the instructions due to mental capacity, contextual factors, etc. Moreover, some are poor listeners – either they do not really want to listen or are unable to give full attention because their focus at that particular moment is on other pressing matters.
Give clear instructions through 4Cs
Given the above factors and other cultural considerations, it becomes more evident that giving instructions should not be taken as a merely procedural endeavour. There has to be some extra care, flexibility, and to some extent, creativity to ensure that instructions are delivered with the right words and tone, and it will be understood correctly by the receiver. Below is an attempt to aggregate all the practical reminders in one bundle – 4Cs as we call it. Simply remember these four key words: common, complete, confirm, calibrate.
|Giving clear instructions should not be taken as a merely procedural endeavour|
Use easy-to-understand and COMMON words
Make your message easier to digest by using words that are plain, direct, and as few as necessary. Also, use terms that are common to seafarers, such as the Standard Marine Communication Phrases (SMCP)
Give specific and COMPLETE information
Explain how the job should be done – the steps, involved personnel, tools, other resources, the expected outcome, and completion date or time. Instead of saying “immediately”, “very soon”, “ASAP”, “within the week”, use specific time references. Instead of saying “few”, “some”, give the exact or best estimate. Remind about the hazards and risks, as well as the necessary paperwork to be completed before starting the job. Also, provide a backup plan to address possible changes in environmental conditions, sudden reassignment of crew members, emergency situations, etc. It is a good practice to supplement your verbal instructions with small written notes of the key points. After all, the receivers may not remember everything you said, especially if the instructions deal with complex processes. If possible, give the instructions at the actual worksite so you can pinpoint the specific location, demonstrate a critical process, or better describe the steps. Another way to ensure you give complete information is to avoid delegating the giving of instructions to another person. Adding a middleman may compromise the message as additional layers in the communication chain may give different interpretations. In addition to the risk of communication breakdown, additional resources are used unnecessarily.
CONFIRM if your message is clear and understood
Do not assume that the receiver has the same understanding as you. Ask if the person has questions or need clarifications. To really check understanding, you may ask the receiver to recap your instructions. Be mindful of the ‘Yes’ responses because, as explained earlier, these may actually mean ‘No’. Establish trust with your subordinates so that they will feel it is safe to communicate and speak out.
CALIBRATE your instructions when needed
Be attentive to the receiver’s verbal responses, body movements and facial expressions. If deemed necessary, add non-verbal cues through actions, gestures, pointing to actual objects, or recalling recently completed similar jobs. If a language barrier is evident, sketch a step-by-step process or let a competent interpreter help you. Keep in mind that regardless of the receiver’s cultural tendency, the safe way to communicate instructions is to keep a low-context focus – explicit, simple, clear, literal, and precise.
Leaders need to be flexible
|Leaders need to be flexible, creative and conscious of the cultural factors|
In the final analysis, giving clear instructions is not a rigid science. Leaders need to be flexible, creative and conscious of the cultural and other prevailing factors that should all be considered to make the instructions suitable and clear to the receiver. Just to emphasise: one may be an excellent communicator in his/her own culture, but what works in one culture may not be as effective in other cultures.