top of page
  • Jason Starke, Ph.D.

Building Trust and Empathy for Effective Communication

Updated: Feb 20

Effective communication is the cornerstone of any successful organization, especially when it comes to safety management. As safety managers, it is crucial for us to bridge the gap and foster effective communication between different cultures and microcultures within our organization. In this blog article, we will explore the concept of cultural islands, as introduced by cultural theorist Ed Schein, and how they can help improve communication and understanding across diverse groups. By creating a safe space for open dialogue and empathy, we can enhance safety practices and prevent communication breakdowns that could lead to potential safety issues.

Understanding Macrocultures and Microcultures:

Culture, both on a macro and micro level, plays a significant role in shaping our perceptions, beliefs, and communication styles. Macro cultures refer to larger groups, such as nations or professions, while microcultures are more specific to organizations or departments within them. In the aviation industry, for example, we can observe macro cultures between pilots, line service personnel, maintenance technicians, dispatchers, and administrative staff. Within these macro cultures, microcultures can emerge, representing how each department or team adapts the larger culture to fit their specific context.

Challenges of Communicating Across Cultures:

One of the primary challenges in cross-cultural communication is the tendency to view and judge others through the lens of our own culture. This narrow perspective can hinder effective communication, leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and safety risks. To overcome these challenges, we need to acknowledge and appreciate the diversity of cultures within our organization. By embracing different viewpoints and learning from one another, we can create a more inclusive and productive work environment.

The Concept of Cultural Islands:

Ed Schein's concept of cultural islands offers a practical approach to fostering understanding and empathy across diverse cultures and microcultures. The idea is to create a safe space where individuals from different groups can come together and engage in open and honest discussions. By removing the individual focus and encouraging group conversations, participants can freely express their thoughts, ask questions, and share experiences without feeling singled out.

The Process of Staring at the Campfire:

In the cultural island exercise, participants form a circle or gather around an imaginary campfire. This arrangement allows individuals to address the group as a whole rather than speaking directly to an individual. The facilitator initiates the conversation by posing a question related to a specific scenario or cultural challenge. For instance, they might ask how different microcultures handle incidents of incorrect leadership. Each participant takes turns sharing their perspective, highlighting cultural differences in approach and mindset.

Building Trust and Empathy:

As discussions unfold, participants gain insights into the diverse ways different microcultures address similar situations. This exchange of ideas helps break down barriers and build trust, creating an environment where empathy and understanding can flourish. By reaching what Ed Schein refers to as a level two relationship, participants develop a deeper appreciation for one another's values, beliefs, and communication styles. This understanding becomes the foundation for effective communication across cultural boundaries.

The Impact on Safety:

In the context of safety management, effective communication is paramount to prevent incidents and ensure the well-being of employees and equipment. By embracing the cultural island concept, we can improve the flow of critical safety information between different microcultures. By communicating from a place of understanding and empathy, we can deliver messages in a manner that resonates with each group's unique perspective. This approach minimizes the risk of miscommunication, enhancing overall safety practices within the organization.

It is crucial to take the time to reflect on how we can enhance communication and understanding within our organizations. By recognizing and addressing cultural differences, we can foster an environment where diverse microcultures thrive and collaborate effectively. The concept of cultural islands, as introduced by Ed Schein, provides a valuable framework for creating safe spaces that encourage open dialogue, empathy, and mutual respect. By embracing this approach, we can strengthen our safety programs, prevent communication breakdowns, and ensure a safer workplace for everyone.



Organizational Culture and Leadership, 5th ed. (2016) by Edgar H. Schein

18 views0 comments


bottom of page