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Are We Up to the Challenge of Diverse Cultures in Global Organizations?

Diversity in the workplace is gaining greater and greater importance. On the one hand, it is more and more endorsed by legislation and social attitudes. On the other, it is becoming more and more evident that a diverse workforce is simply good for business. And while the efforts to create inclusion and equity for minority groups are commendably receiving more resources and attention, we may be overlooking another attribute that makes us different – our diverse cultures.

Remaining blind to the multiculturalism of our workforce could prevent us from bringing even more innovation and variety of ideas to our business. At the same time, it could make some of our employees feel unseen and unable to achieve their full potential.

In today’s world of remote work and dispersed teams, people managers who lack the knowledge of working with diverse cultures may face significant and unexpected challenges in bringing out the best in their teams.

So, what are some things we may want to be more sensitive to?

Language

Most global organizations have an official language that everyone is expected to use in corporate communication. And for many of us, the official company language is not our native tongue. This means that, at the very least, we will have an accent. And more often than not, we will have gaps in knowledge of some vocabulary and jargon.

This may have both very visible and some more covert implications. As people managers, we need to be sensitive to the various levels at which our team understands the language we communicate in. Failing to do so may lead to situations where our instructions or requests are misinterpreted, and the results we expect from the team members are never achieved.

And while such misunderstandings may be easily noticed and remedied, language bias is something much harder to detect and control. Research shows that from a very early age, humans prefer people who speak their native language. Thus we are more likely to feel favorably toward someone who sounds like us.

And in addition, we are all prone to make conclusions about one’s intelligence and education based on their use of vocabulary, grammar and style. And while this may have some merit when you are both native speakers, it is a very unreliable gauge when you judge someone speaking a foreign language.

This means that non-native speakers are at an immediate disadvantage as soon as they open their mouths. It takes them much more effort and skill to present and sell a proposal or opinion or persuade others in their point of view. And depending on the individual, this may be discouraging enough for them to stop trying. Which is how an organization may lose a host of potentially successful ideas.

Communication

But the variances in the way we communicate go beyond language. People with diverse cultural backgrounds may differ in how they express themselves.

People in my part of the world are said to be very direct in their delivery. We prefer to cut to the chase and just say what we need or think. This, in the eyes of many colleagues from Western cultures, often makes us seem unpolished at best and rude at worst.

Conversely, the ornamentations and niceties with which they typically intersperse their speech sometimes make it challenging for us to grasp the underlying message. And we end up sitting there thinking, “just say it already.”

There are other ways in which people from different cultures participate differently in conversations. For some cultures being active in a discussion is imperative. It gives you a chance to be noticed by more senior employees and shows you are an enthusiastic and valuable participant in the discussion.

For others, though, speaking up in front of your superiors without being asked may be a sign of disrespect. It does not mean those employees do not have valuable ideas or strong opinions. It means that the open discussion setting may not be the right one to elicit those.

Focusing on the message rather than the manner it is delivered and providing your employees with different channels to express their thoughts and suggestions may help overcome the potential hurdles those cultural differences can present.

Geert Hofstede’s intercultural dimensions

Of course, it is impossible to discuss the variations of cultures in the workplace without touching upon the work of Geert Hofstede, who conducted one of the most comprehensive studies of how values in the workplace were influenced by culture in the 1960s. Subsequently, his research has been expanded and confirmed by many other academics.

According to him, national cultures can be viewed and compared along six dimensions.

Power distance index

The power distance index expresses how different cultures accept the hierarchy and the vertical distribution of power. Some cultures prefer a more apparent hierarchy, and others are more comfortable with a flatter, more fluid organization.

Today, the trend in most organizations is for a flatter structure, with managers and leaders being close to the team and providing guidance rather than directives. So when we first start managing global teams, it often stumps us that this approach does not bring the expected results in some cultures.

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If we work with cultures that are more used to hierarchy, we may need to adjust our management style and be more authoritative. And that may feel uncomfortable initially.

Individualism vs. collectivism

Hofstede’s second dimension is related to individualism vs. collectivism. It indicates whether cultures are engaged more with the individual or the group‘s success.

This one can also be tricky in the workplace if we fail to account for it. For me, the team‘s success has always been more important than my own success. And I am conscious of the fact that this may make me seem passive in the very American corporate cultures I have worked in the past few years.

In addition, this sometimes creates a blind spot for me when managing my own teams. I sometimes forget that promoting shared success as a foundational value for my team may leave my more individualistic team members feeling misunderstood and unappreciated.

Masculinity vs. femininity

This dimension can be expressed in the workplace as a clash between competitiveness, assertiveness and achievement versus cooperation, modesty and caring about others.

Modern corporate cultures promote achievement and assertiveness by design, which may make it difficult for members of more feminine cultures to feel a sense of belonging.

Uncertainty avoidance

In today’s world of constant change and tumult, we all need to develop our ability to cope with the uncertainty of the future. However, some cultures find it more challenging than others.

Not knowing what the company plan for the next year is and how an organizational change may impact the day-to-day work may be overwhelming for some employees. And this should be taken into consideration when team and company communications are designed and delivered.

Long-term versus short-term orientation

This is another dimension that may significantly affect successful change implementation in an organization. For some cultures, traditions and norms are paramount. Change, for them, may be perceived as threatening.

I am sure every global manager has crashed against the wall of “ we do things this way because we have always done them this way.” While this can be frustrating, simply trying to bulldoze over the resistance will not bring us the success we expect. We must be mindful that our employees’ opposition stems from a place much more profound than their opinion on how Excel reports should look.

Indulgence vs. restraint

While the dimension of indulgence (easy and quick gratification of needs and wants) versus restraint (delayed gratification subject to strict social norms) seems to influence societies in more subtle ways, its effects can also be noticed in the workplace.

Some cultures may expect work to always bring fun and enjoyment. Others may view work as an obligation that needs to be taken care of so reward can be achieved.

It can also be noticed in the different assumptions for reward and recognition, with some cultures awaiting rewards and recognition for each completed task. And others have a more “I am just doing my job” attitude.

Approach to mistakes

One of the cultural variations that I have found most challenging as a manager is related to the different approaches related to handling failure and mistakes.

For the longest time, I expected my employees to be like me. When I make a mistake, I immediately own up to it and try to find a way to fix it. Due to my severe anxiety, I often overthink it and punish myself for a long time afterward. But this has never stopped me from admitting the mistake and taking accountability.

Therefore, it came as quite a shock to me when I started managing global teams, and I started noticing that in some of my teams, the approach towards mistakes is much the opposite. They would try to cover the error and find excuses for it once it is discovered rather than coming out and saying, “hey, I messed up.”

I felt very disappointed and frustrated for a while until I realized that mistakes were simply unacceptable in their cultures. Admitting that you can’t do something or that you have failed is a cause of deep distress.

It did not mean that they didn’t trust me or that I could not trust them. But it did mean that I would have to adjust my communication and management style to bridge the gap between my expectations and their cultural disposition.

The day-to-day work

And while many of the things described above are a bit abstract and require significant effort and reflection to surmount, others are much more straightforward.

The simplest one to address is to respect others’ time. We all know it is a nightmare to schedule a meeting across different time zones. And more often than not, only one group of employees consistently have to take meetings outside their working hours.

Alternating meeting times so different people are inconvenienced every time can go a long way towards your employees feeling seen and respected. Avoiding meetings when they are not absolutely needed is another way to acknowledge the fact that we work globally. We all have too many meetings anyway.

The pandemic and the pervasiveness of remote and hybrid work brought another potential issue to the surface. We all live under different conditions, and some of us may not have the same financial means.

Being able to see each other during a meeting is excellent. However, insisting that everyone is on camera while you are sitting in your comfortable home office and someone is stuck due to lockdown with seven extended family members in two rooms is simply unkind.

Cultural awareness

Understanding how to work and interact with people from other cultures comes with knowing more about those cultures. To enhance diversity and inclusion, organizations should work more towards creating awareness and celebrating other cultures.

On the one hand, this comes with creating more cultural learning opportunities and creating space where people can comfortably talk about their culture. On the other, it involves curtailing imposing the prevalent culture in the organization on everyone else.

Because let me be honest, while I love Thanksgiving because my US colleagues are off and my work calendar is wide open, this is not a holiday that has any relevance to me. And I don’t really celebrate it. Just like Bulgarian independence day has no relevance to most of you, and I would not expect you to celebrate it.

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