By Talaera Talks on Nov 15, 2022 11:49:10 AM
Listen to this episode on Spotify.
If you work in a multicultural workplace, there may be situations where you think you understand something in one way and later realize that a colleague from a different culture understood it in a completely different way. In some cases, you may only find this out when a project isn't completed on time. Or it is completed in a totally different way than you had originally thought.
In this post, we will look at some examples of cultural differences in the workplace and share some actionable tips that will help you work more effectively across cultures.
Why is it important to understand cultural differences?
One of the most fascinating aspects of cultural differences in the workplace is how team members from different cultures can work together effectively. With high cultural intelligence, team members from different cultures can find common ground and work together to achieve a common goal – despite their different backgrounds.
In many cases, cultural differences can actually be an asset in the workplace. For example, team members from different cultures may have different perspectives on a problem, which can lead to more creative solutions. Additionally, team members from different cultures may be able to offer new insights and perspectives on company policies or procedures.
Of course, cultural differences can also create challenges in the workplace. For example, team members from different cultures may have difficulty communicating with each other due to language barriers. They may also have different ideas about what is considered appropriate behavior in the workplace. However, these challenges can often be overcome with patience and understanding.
Understanding cultural differences is important in the workplace because it can help you avoid misunderstandings, be more productive, and build better relationships with your colleagues.
Overall, taking the time to learn about the various cultures represented in your workplace can only benefit you and your career. By developing a greater understanding of the people you work with, you will be able to create a more positive and productive work environment for everyone involved.
There are many different types of cultural differences that can be found in the workplace. Here are some examples:
- Language barriers can make communication difficult and lead to misunderstandings.
- Different customs and traditions can cause conflict or confusion.
- Different values and beliefs can create tension or disagreement.
- Different ways of doing things can lead to frustration or inefficiency.
- Different styles of dress or mannerisms can be distracting or off-putting.
Types of cultural differences in the workplace
There are many ways in which cultural differences can impact the workplace. One example is the way in which different cultures view time. In some cultures, time is viewed as a linear concept, with a beginning, middle, and end. In others, time is seen as more cyclical, with events happening in cycles or repeating over time. This can impact the way deadlines are viewed and how work is scheduled.
In individualistic cultures like the US, employees are often expected to work independently and take ownership of their projects. This can be a shock to employees from more collectivist cultures, where teamwork and interdependence are valued above all else.
In the United States, punctuality is highly valued. If you have a meeting scheduled for 9 am, it's important to be there on time (or even early). In some Latin American countries, however, there are other aspects more important than punctuality, like relationship building.
These are just a few examples of how culture can impact communication in the workplace. By being aware of cultural gaps in the workplace, you can avoid misunderstandings and other cross-cultural struggles and build stronger relationships with your coworkers.
Cultural differences can also impact the way that authority is viewed. In some cultures, authority figures are respected and obeyed without question. In others, the authority may be challenged more frequently. This can impact the workplace dynamic and make it difficult to get work done if there is a lot of disagreement about who is in charge.
Finally, cultural differences can also impact the way that work itself is viewed. In some cultures, work is seen as a necessary evil that must be endured in order to survive. In others, work is seen as an opportunity to learn, grow, and contribute to something larger than oneself. This can impact motivation and productivity in the workplace.
Examples of cultural differences in the workplace
Communication across cultures
It's no secret that communication is key in the workplace. But did you know that there can be vast cultural differences in how people communicate with each other? These differences can lead to language barriers and end up in misunderstandings and frustration, but they can also be the source of much enrichment and enjoyment.
In some cultures, direct communication is seen as the best way to get a point across. This can be seen as confrontational in other cultures where indirect communication is more common. Small talk -which we use to build rapport and strengthen relationships, also differs between cultures.
In the United States, it is common for employees to speak up when they have an idea or concern. This is seen as a positive thing, as it shows initiative and a desire to contribute to the company. In many Asian cultures, however, speaking up in this way is considered rude and disrespectful. It's better to wait until you're asked before offering your opinion.
Feedback across cultures
When it comes to feedback, there are a few different ways in which cultures tend to differ. For example, in some cultures, it is more common to give feedback in a more direct way. In other cultures, feedback may be given more indirectly.
One of the most interesting cultural differences in feedback is how different cultures handle criticism. In some cultures, it is seen as very important to be able to take criticism well and even use it to improve. In others, criticism is seen as much more negative and something to be avoided if possible.
Knowing these cultural differences can be extremely helpful in the workplace. If you know that your colleague from another culture tends to give feedback in a more indirect way, you can adjust how you receive it and make sure not to take offense where none was intended. Similarly, if you know that someone from another culture takes criticism well, you can feel free to give them constructive feedback without worrying about hurting their feelings.
In general, being aware of the cultural differences in how feedback is given and received can help you to navigate the workplace successfully and avoid misunderstandings.
Power distance refers to the way people in a society relate to each other on a hierarchical scale. As some define it, it is the degree to which people accept that power is distributed unequally.
In high power distance cultures, people tend to defer to those in positions of authority and expect them to take a leading role. Low power distance cultures are more egalitarian, and all people -leaders and subordinates- expect to have a say in decisions that affect them.
In high power distance cultures, there is a large inequality in power differences between leaders and subordinates. Rank and authority are important and subordinates are expected to show respect to them.
In low power distance cultures, organizations tend to have a flatter structure where decision-making processes are more inclusive and subordinates are expected to speak up and share their opinions.
Power distance can have a big impact on workplace dynamics. In high power distance cultures, employees may be reluctant to speak up or challenge those in authority, even if they have good ideas. This can lead to a lack of creativity and innovation.
In low power distance cultures, employees may be more likely to speak their minds and challenge authority figures, which can lead to more dynamic and productive workplaces.
Cultural differences in power distance can also impact communication. High power distance cultures tend to have formal communication styles, with clear hierarchies and rules about who can speak to whom. Low power distance cultures often have more informal communication styles, where people feel free to speak their minds and share ideas freely.
Understanding power distance dynamics can help you build more effective workplace relationships and communication strategies. When working with someone from a culture with different power distance norms than your own, be aware of how these dynamics might be affecting your interactions. Try to adjust your communication style as needed to ensure that everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions.
Saving face across cultures
Simon, Talaera’s Danish-American People and Culture Manager, used to live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There, he managed a team of international trainers and Vietnamese employees. He tells us about an experience that shifted how he thought about collaborating across cultures.
"I set up a meeting to brainstorm some ideas to provide a better service for some of our students. And so I set up this meeting, we all got together, had coffee, and it was really nice. And I put up a big board. The idea was is we would start to brainstorm and throw all these ideas out onto the board. And then we would discuss these ideas and see which ones we could use.
Some of the teachers there were American and British and Irish and South African, and they started throwing out ideas. I thought it was going great. But the Vietnamese were somewhat quiet. They're all smart, great, capable, awesome employees, so I wanted to include them.
I then pointed out one of the best employees on the team. “Okay, Lindy, let's keep this going. Have you thought of any ideas that you could add to this to this list of ideas that we have?” And her face went totally pale. She became very quiet and didn't say a word. There was an awkward silence, and then she just put her head down."
Simon had the best intentions, as he just wanted to make it a group exercise, where everyone felt included. However, for the Vietnamese employees, he had put Lindsay on the spot. She wasn’t prepared and felt embarrassed. (Listen to the full story in the podcast episode above.)
This anecdote summarizes the concept of ‘saving face’, which means keeping your reputation and avoiding others losing respect for you. Saving face is important in many Asian cultures, such as Vietnam or China, but also in other high-context cultures like Latin or Arab countries.
How to collaborate across cultures more effectively
Allow pre-meeting work
Allow some pre-meeting work so that participants have the chance to prepare. You can create a shared document where people can add ideas before the meeting.
If people have the opportunity to prepare their thoughts and ideas beforehand, they will be more likely to feel confident during the meeting and share their ideas.
Be aware of cultural differences
When you are collaborating across cultures, you need to be actively tuning into what's happening both ways. Pay attention to what people are saying, and –more importantly– to what people are not saying.
To avoid putting people on the spot, learn to ask better questions across cultures (tip: ask more open-ended questions!).
Create a collaboration code
When it comes to cultural differences in the workplace, one of the most important things to keep in mind is the need for a collaboration code. This code should outline how employees from different cultures can work together effectively and it should be designed to promote mutual respect and understanding.
Some key points that should be included in a collaboration code are:
- Recognizing and valuing the unique perspectives that each culture brings to the table.
- Encouraging open communication between employees of different cultures, so that misunderstandings can be avoided.
- Creating an environment where everyone feels comfortable sharing their ideas and opinions.
- Promoting mutual respect by treating all employees with dignity and respect.
By having a collaboration code in place, businesses can create an environment where cultural differences are respected and valued, and where all employees feel comfortable working together.
It's fascinating to see how cultural differences can play out in the workplace. In some cases, they can lead to misunderstandings and conflict. In other cases, they can actually be a source of strength and creativity.
In any case, it's important to be aware of these differences so that we can learn to work together more effectively. We hope that this article has given you a better understanding of some of the ways that culture can impact the workplace.
If you are looking to further develop cross-cultural intelligence (CQ), address cross-cultural struggles, and improve collaboration across cultures, work 1:1 with an expert instructor, explore scalable communications training for your teams, and make the most of our free resources.
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