Degree Name

Doctor of Business Administration


Faculty of Business


Communication between individuals is influenced by the range and extent of perceived and actual differences that exist between interactants. Differences need to be accommodated in order to achieve effective communication outcomes and limit the influence of subjective biases and stereotypes. This study uses communication accommodation theory (CAT) to examine whether perceived demographic differences between interactants affect the outcome of face-toface workplace conversations initiated by Australian managers and whether linguistic tactics are used to accommodate differences. One premise associated with CAT is that people modify their communication transmissions to highlight, reduce, or reinforce the differences between themselves and a message recipient during an interpersonal interaction.

Using an online survey, managers operating in a range of Australian organisations were asked to reflect on two workplace conversations initiated in the previous six months. The first conversation was with a subordinate, i.e. a ‘downwards’ interaction; the second conversation was with a superior, i.e. an ‘upwards’ conversation. Responses were received from 397 managers based in Australia. Demographic information was collected about each responding manager, as well as the managers’ perceptions of the demographic attributes of the other person participating in each conversation. This data was used to determine where demographic differences and similarities existed between each set of interactants. Attributes examined included gender, age, organisational tenure (or the length of time working for the organisation), the length of time the manager had held their position, the length of working relationship between the interactants, each persons’ level of education, their country of birth, and whether interactants use English language at home. Managers rated the perceived effectiveness of each conversation, identified whether or not specific linguistic tactics were used during the conversation and indicated whether they planned to alter their approach to future interactions with that person.

The number of demographic differences between the interactants was established and then analysed against the reported outcomes and future intents through regression, ANOVAs, and chi-square tests.

Only 5 upwards conversations (0.6 percent) of the total 794 conversations were between people who were perceived to be demographically similar to each other across all the demographic categories examined in the study. The association between position tenure, effective outcomes and the use of linguistic tactics was found to have the highest level of significance across both conversations in comparison to other demographic categories. More linguistic tactics were used in conversations with subordinates as compared to superiors. The relationship between gender and outcomes was only evident in conversations with superiors, however gender was associated with the use of specific linguistic tactics in conversations with subordinates. Age had the strongest association between the use of linguistic tactics and effective outcomes in both conversations. Other statistically significant relationships were found between the use of English and the effectiveness of conversations. The strongest relationship for non-effective outcomes occurred where interactants did not share the same first language background, whether or not it was English, highlighting difficulties in accommodating language-based differences for managers in multi-lingual workforces.

After reflecting on the outcome of the workplace conversations, managers were asked to specify whether they intended to alter aspects of future interactions with the subordinate or superior. Results indicated that some managers would alter their future conversations regardless of an effective or ineffective outcome, whereas others who reported a non-effective outcome would nevertheless not change the way they approach face-to-face conversations with the other person. Managers who considered adjusting or refining their approach in future interactions seek to improve the effectiveness of outcomes by increasing the use of accommodative communication practices. This finding held for both upward and downward conversations.

The implications of these results for managerial conversations in Australia’s increasingly diverse workplaces are discussed.