lunchtime study of the passersby on St George’s Terrace will confirm
what you already know as a manager: Perth is growing in cultural
diversity by the day. If the composition of your office reflects in any
way the make-up on the street, you need to master the art of handling
cultural difference, and in a hurry!
It’s a universal theme of modernity, no matter whether your office is
in Perth, Philadelphia or The Philippines. What is the best way to mold
employees of differing reference points into a cohesive, communicative
team? How do you bring people together when they have nothing obvious in
common, and perhaps very many attributes in contrast?
The challenges of cultural diversity in the workplace are enormous
and it’s in the detail that you see the flashpoints. Some are
significant stumbling blocks like language, work ethic, legal
expectations, acceptance of corruption and intrusion of personal matters
in the workplace. Others are subtle, requiring highly attuned social
antennae. Issues such as expected hours of work, attitude to authority,
the degree of family priority, religious sensibilities, attitudes to
time and deadlines, follow-through, ethnic cultural variations,
conversational nuances, silence and its different meanings. It’s a
minefield for even the most accomplished manager.
Busy executives like you need a framework for handling these matters.
You don’t need a policy manual, just some common sense steps developed
from having been there and done that.
Fortunately for you, here they are:
First, secure the sure foundation. Make absolutely clear that you and
your company are blind to race and religion, in fact any factor which
is fundamental to human rights. Don’t just give lip service to this.
Believe it. Imagine how you’d feel if you were differentiated on these
grounds. Now, imagine forcing such a feeling on another person. Not
Second, create commonality by obsessing about the enemy. Now, in the
business world, this means that in everything you announce, comment on
and act upon, make your competition the focal point. Seize the
opportunity to put your rivals in your sights. And, don’t focus on small
competitors. Think and talk in grand terms about ramming the most
impenetrable competitor or harrying the sluggish rival. You’d be amazed
what focus employees will offer you, whether in implementing direct
assault or guerilla insurgencies. When I say employees, I mean all of
them in all their glorious individuality. In short, transform the
atmosphere and dialogue in your office from internal division to
external competition. Now you have a common purpose. Everything else
Third, talk to other people who’ve managed culturally diverse groups.
The best are those who’ve had an international posting to manage a
particular cultural group. The manager will be full of war stories about
his or her mistakes. Use this information to build what I call a culturebank,
a mind map of cultural groups and common observations that are made
about their workplace interactions. Yes, this may result in some
stereotyping and we know the difficulties that presents. However, you
will also hear pearls of wisdom that should not be ignored. Draw of the
experiences of others as a starting point.
An extract of my own culturebank looks something like this:
Australians acquiesce initially to Americans in the workplace. This
is because Americans are practised public debaters and inculcated in the
art of elocution from an early age. Americans are no more skilled than
any other nationality, despite the advantages they have. So managers
should be vigilant to allow Australians room to communicate and shine,
and not to overvalue American confidence.
Despite being strong communicators, and probably because of it,
Americans tend to misinterpret or simply miss altogether. Australians
and New Zealanders become incoherent British anomalies. Singaporeans are
polite but enigmatic and allusive. Managers must ensure Americans
recheck their own assumptions insofar as organisational dynamics are
Chinese Singaporeans, creators of probably the world’s best social
construct for cultural tolerance, accept Malay Singaporeans and
Filipinos as necessary, but only an Australian or American would say the
latter two groups are lazy.
Malay Singaporeans and Filipinos are prepared to sacrifice career
advancement for family time far more readily. Chinese Singaporeans think
this is unreliable and act to accommodate it. Westerners say it is
unreliable and act to fight it. Australian and American managers can
learn a great deal about how Chinese Singaporeans respond to cultural
difference and recognise alternative value systems and priorities.
South East Asians are interconnected and social. Australians are
individualistic. Americans are uber-individualistic. Managers should
harness the social drive of Singaporeans and Filipinos, whilst
simultaneously exploit the Western need to strike the lone path.
Singaporeans and Filipinos have a deferential approach to authority
and are polite to a fault. A Singaporean or Filipino may smile but this
can frequently hide anger, dissatisfaction or hurt. Australian and
American managers must spend more time gaining Asian employee trust and
building direct relationships.
Fourth, jump in the deep end. Do your own research. Engage your
staff, challenge them, listen to them, and watch them. Modify your culturebank
with your own experiences and observations. Remember, that stereotypes
may be helpful at first but there are exceptions around every corner. No
employee of a particular cultural background is a patented clone.
Transforming your team from culturally fractious to one that
celebrates, even exploits, its diversity is not easy. However, if you
follow the four steps just outlined, you have a much better chance of
success regardless of whether your team is in The Philippines,
Philadelphia or even Perth’s St George’s Terrace.