People, Talent, Teams

Reweaving the tattered threads of a cultural divide

A quick 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 nice, right?

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 seems irrelevant.

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 concerned.

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. Individuality abounds.

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.

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