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Virtual and Project Management Expert: Writer, Speaker, Educator. Author of Managing Without Walls and Fundamentals of Technology Management. President of Garton Consulting Group.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Is Your Multi-Cultural Organization Truly Bridging the Cultural Divide?


Anyone working for a mid to large sized company these days is most likely working in a multi-cultural environment.  This is true for workers located in a corporate office as well as for those working virtually.  As companies have evolved into buying, selling, and operating internationally, their workforces have evolved too.  Work colleagues are drawn from various cultural backgrounds, multiple nationalities, and different countries.

Whether the employees from diverse cultures and nationalities work in the same location, or are geographically dispersed, everyone working as part of that company or team is working in a multi-cultural environment. Whether they realize it or not!

What is interesting, is that many of the employees working in these environments have little knowledge or understanding of the cultural differences that exist between team members.  U.S. employees working for U.S. companies often assume that all employees have a responsibility to adapt to, and adopt, the culture of the organization’s host country. This may seem fair to many but it is an unrealistic and unattainable goal.  People’s cultures don’t change because of where, or for whom, they work. Their fundamental values and beliefs don’t change just because they move to a different country or work for a foreign company.  It is not possible to discard your own culture and adopt another overnight.

A company’s culture is determined by its people. The combination of employees’ cultures and personalities together with the organization’s principles, ethics, rules, regulations, benefits, and work environment(s) all contribute to “company culture”.  So why is there so little acknowledgment and appreciation of the influence of cultural diversity on company culture within most organizations? When cultural diversity is embraced, it enriches, and enhances company culture. When it is merely tolerated, it contributes to negativity and division within the workforce, which will result a rather negative company culture.  If managers, executives and human resources leaders truly understood this, they would take a much more pro-active role in promoting cultural awareness across the ranks.

Whilst most companies have guidelines regarding diversity in the workplace, many of those guidelines are based solely on the law.  Discrimination is illegal in most western countries and discrimination lawsuits can be costly!  I am not suggesting that companies don’t believe that these laws are important. I think that most people value diversity very highly, and truly believe that everyone deserves to be treated equally and fairly. 

What I find interesting is that while employees understand company policy and abide by the rules, many of them have little, or no, true understanding of cultural diversity. This lack of understanding means that team members do not know how to work most effectively in a multi-cultural environment. Often team members divide into “factions” comprised of employees with similar cultural backgrounds. They build rapport, discover commonalities, and develop strong working relationships – and sometimes friendships - with others within their cultural groups. They abide by the rules, communicate, and interact respectfully with people from other cultural groups but don’t “bond” with them in the same way they do with members of their own cultural group.  Why does this happen?  It happens because not discriminating against others is doing the minimum necessary to stay within the law.  Companies should be striving for much more. The success of a company is determined by its people.  The better its people understand, respect and appreciate each other, the more potential for success.

Employees cannot gain an in-depth understanding of cultural differences just by working on a team that has employees from different countries. They learn that there are differences, yes, but these differences are often a source of frustration rather than a source of enrichment.  For example, dealing with language differences can be frustrating and time-consuming. Comprehending differences in business etiquette or the urgency associated with deadlines can be confusing and stressful.  It is likely that you will hear comments such as “I don’t enjoy talking with people from our office in India because I can’t understand what they are saying”, or “People from Japan say “yes” to everything even when they don’t agree with me”, or “I wish the managers in our Brazil office would stop agreeing to deadlines that they know they cannot meet”.

Sound familiar?  I am sure you have heard these types of comments and many others that indicate a high level of frustration working cross-culturally. Perhaps you have even made these types of comments yourself. The people who make these comments are generally not being intentionally discriminatory. They do not intend their words to be personal attacks on individuals. They are just struggling with cultural differences that they have no idea how to manage.  Sadly, over time, these frustrations can fester and increase. Though publicly everyone is polite and abiding by the “value diversity” rules, no-one is really enjoying working together and team morale decreases.  These frustrations are felt on all sides.  The people in India are frustrated that no-one listens to their input. The Japanese are being polite by not disagreeing with you, and therefore not disrespecting you, in the presence of your team and don’t understand why you disrespect them in public. The Brazilians don’t understand why you are always so angry with them when they are doing their best to make everyone happy.  Different cultures; different perspectives.

The problem is not with the people or the cultures. The problem is the lack of expertise in cross-cultural communication. People do not change their national or religious culture because they work for an international company.  Organizations cannot take employees in and turn them into replicas of each other that all think and communicate in the same way.  This is not the Stepford Wives – thank goodness! A culturally diverse organization has incredible value potential.  It contains so many different perspectives of your business, your products, and your customers.  Leveraging this knowledge can give your organization incredible insight into conducting business internationally. You can learn how to communicate more effectively, and how to sell your products and services to a broader audience.

Cultural training for the entire workforce, at all levels of your organization and in all geographical locations, would go a long way towards building respect and understanding between team members. Forget the politically correct rules and regulations about discrimination for a couple of hours, and take the time to really learn about each other.  When you have genuine respect and appreciation for differences, you don’t need to mandate how people behave, or what they say to each other. They will be respectful and non-discriminatory because they want to – not because company policy tells them they have to!  There will still be misunderstandings and frustrations from time to time, but your employees will understand why there is a problem and will be able to work together to resolve it.

Give your workforce the information it needs to understand and appreciate cultural differences and you will create a successful and highly motivated team. Make it fun to learn about the differences and similarities.  Your workforce will figure out to how to use this information its full advantage.  They will learn to make necessary adjustments in the way they communicate and collaborate to increase effectiveness. They will recognize the strengths of each individual and will help each other to maximize on those strengths.  They will no longer make assumptions based on nationality, cultural background, or language skills. You will have a truly multi-cultural organization that leverages the strengths of everyone on the team.

It can be a lot of fun learning about other cultures and traditions. Team leaders should be taking an active role in promoting learning on an ongoing basis. As you learn about others and share information about yourself, you will get a glimpse of how your own culture is viewed through other people’s eyes. Explaining the where, why and how things are done in your own culture gives it a personality that you may not have noticed before. Breaking down the barriers that restrict cross-cultural teamwork and respect benefits everyone in your organization.
Garton Consulting Group specializes in training for virtual, global and cross-cultural teams.

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