Global working environment has become very common these days, especially when you’re working in a start-up or under a larger company that has offices across the world. This means local workers will easily be introduced to a colleague or boss from another country, who comes with a whole new set of eyes on things, including culture.
Different backgrounds, experiences and culture could influence how a person interacts with other people. When differences meet with its opposites, cultural clashes are bound to happen, especially in professional settings, where tension may increase due to stress and tight deadlines.
It’s not easy to blend these two or more diversity in one place, but it’s always worth trying to try finding common ground to quell the heat. In the end, having a culturally diverse workplace is proven to have many benefits.
Why Is Cultural Differences Important
Cultural differences are important because it offers a lot of benefit to the overall growth of a company. A company that understands how to identify and address cultural differences accordingly will thrive and become more resilient when faced with adversity.
Diverse employees with different talents, experiences and skill sets have a bigger chance to come up with creative solutions, than their counterparts with similar backgrounds. Cultural differences could also increase innovation, while overall inclusiveness will easily increase productivity and employee satisfaction.
If you’re a team leader, managing a diverse team member would become an essential skill to master. It’s important for the leader to understand each one of their team member’s cultural background to gain insight into the reasoning of their behaviour in the workplace. This knowledge will help mediate any future conflict, provide relevant motivation, and even make under-represented groups feel included within the team.
It’s not easy to educate and advocate cultural differences, but when they start behaving respectfully, the team can work together more efficiently. Thus, it will boost productivity, increased creativity, improved innovation, decision making and problem solving. It may even become one of the key reasons in reducing employee turnover.
Types of Cultural Differences
Different cultures offer different perspectives of things. In the workplace, this means people must have their reason in doing things in a certain way. It is our job to understand these different perspectives to dispel negative stereotypes and personal biases about people from different cultures.
There are four types of cultural differences. Each has its own trait and elements that influence a person’s way of being. From their environment, childhood upbringing, to their cultural history, there are a lot of aspects that may be considered as culturally different in the workplace.
The office is already filled with highly diverse people with a wide range of ages, experience levels, religions, to the level of their economic background.
1. Generational Differences
Generational differences refer to workers who came from a certain generation. These generations' biases can have a strong impact on their stance in terms of collaboration, communication, leadership, and work ethic.
For instance, people who are born between 1943-1964 (baby boomers) and 1965-1979 (gen-x) are more inclined to work in one company for a long period of time. Their loyalty to the company is their badge of honour and they believe that having a long-term career at a single workplace is the way to go.
Meanwhile, if you look at the next generation’s point of view, those who are born between 1980-2000 (Millennials) are more flexible when it comes to working at a company. They won’t mind changing jobs every other year if it means a consistent growth in their career. They also value a good work-life balance, where they can enjoy other passions outside of work and even make money from it.
2. Ethnical Difference
Ethnical or racial differences also have a very significant impact on someone’s way of being in the workplace. For example, American bosses are more than happy to be called by his or her name directly, while an Asian leader will demand proper honorifics and certain manner or courtesy when being addressed.
When it comes to communication, some cultures are also more open to direct communication and won’t flinch when criticized or having a candid conversation. While their counterpart will have a hard time discussing certain matters, especially when it has a potential to hurt the other person’s feelings.
Other examples would be the level of ambitiousness of a person in getting what they want. While in the western culture having a strong go to attitude is praised, in some Asian countries being too ambitious could be considered crude. They value togetherness and equal chance in furthering their career, rather than trying to outshine the competition.
3. Religious Difference
Perhaps the strongest influence on a person’s values and point of view, religious difference in the workplace is something that will highly impact their behaviour and priorities. A person from a certain religion may not be willing to participate in a project if it has elements that’s against their belief.
For example, a Moslem will refuse to become a cook if the produce and animals used are not certified halal. And a Christian will be less likely to respond to any work-related email on a Sunday morning, due to their praying schedule at the church.
Another example would be that a devout Moslem will prioritize praying when the time's come, even when they’re in the middle of a meeting. It’s imperative that they pray at the exact time as the adzan comes.
4. Educational Difference
A lot of companies hire high-level managers based on their education and work experiences; this means that they will be working with people of varied educational backgrounds. Drastically different educational levels working on the same projects have the potential to create friction. But a good manager will be able to bridge this gap by communicating effectively.
While the manager may have the knowledge about a certain matter within the project, a team member who knows nothing of said matter, will find it difficult to understand the managers’ inquiries. It’s best if the manager communicates what he or she needs from the team member in the most clear and concise manner possible.
This does not mean that lower-level education is to be coddled all the time, there are moments where managers or leaders could use this opportunity to teach the team and transfer their knowledge. This way, the company will gain more benefit from the overall knowledge growth of their employees.
Examples of Cultural Differences
We have covered some examples of cultural differences above, but let’s dive into more examples on how cultural differences may impact the workplace in this global working environment.
1. Visual Appearance
A person’s visual appearance may be highly influenced by their culture, especially religion and generation. A gen-x Moslem female executive will most probably opt for an elegant hijab, while the younger generation or millennial Moslem will choose to wear a more expressive and colourful ones -albeit both are work appropriate.
Certain cultures will expect their followers to wear a certain clothing or colours, while others may use accessories to express their beliefs. Visual appearance of one person is already varied, and the cultural difference will increase that distinctiveness into more colourful characters.
2. Candor & Critics
The culture where everyone is equal in voicing their thoughts and concerns about anything, especially work-related issues, is sadly not something currently implemented in every office. Being candor can be difficult when you’re working in an most Asian company.
European and western employees are also keener to say no to something they do not want or disagree with. While Asian employees will find it hard to do so and will do their best to their abilities to do what’s requested.
The taboo to criticize your superior is still very much alive in China, that’s why most Chinese employees are less vocal and only able to sound their thoughts when they’re called upon. Of course, nowadays, more modern Chinese companies adopt the western candor attitude where everyone and anyone can speak their mind and learn to take criticism with an open mind.
Whether someone tends to be more collaborative or thrive more individually can also drive from their generational difference. Although Gen-X and Gen-Z have very little in common, one thing for sure, they are the more independent people. They are used to solving problems on their own, most probably it’s due to the pre-internet lifestyle. On the other hand, millennials are more team oriented.
The same can be said with Japanese culture that puts the needs of a group, then the needs of individuals in their decision-making process. Bridging these two differences in hope to cater good collaboration effort and teamwork is key.
Now that you recognize the existence of cultural differences in the company, you can take steps to manage their impact and bridge the gap between the two.
Start by hosting a diversity training to introduce the locals to new culture and build a more understanding environment at work. When team members understand each other better, communication will go well, and projects can run better on a positive note.
Don’t forget to acknowledge and celebrate any cultural, national, or religious holidays. Respect everyone’s choice and background, be inclusive and provide a safe environment for anyone to practice their belief equally.
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