HR Forum

Managing in a multicultural workplace

In managing cross-culturally, we need to recognise that up to half of workplace behaviour, including communication patterns and management styles, is culturally derived. A lack of cultural literacy can give rise to misunderstandings.

Often when dealing with a multi-cultural workforce, the issue is twofold: a lack of cultural agility on the part of leaders and a lack of cultural awareness on the part of their organisations. The first step toward success is to understand our own cultural lens and then to learn other cultural views.

Sometimes the issue is as simple as linguistic skills. English may be the language of business, but only 5% of the world speaks the language.

There was an instance when a French-speaking manager drew complaints of rude behaviour towards employees, who were equally inept with English. The real problem: he had not mastered the subtleties of the local culture. When he gave directions, he might say, “Your behavior is bad” or “You don’t think.”

In another situation, a managing director at a manufacturing plant might be needed to lead major organisational change. It is important that he is not only to be mindful of the content but also chooses words and gestures that the audience finds comfortable.

Communication style, whether direct as in Germany and the United States, or indirect as in Asia and the Middle East or Britain, is another potential problem.

Proverbs provide insight into a culture. Native English speakers say, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” meaning speak up if you want something. The Chinese believe “The empty cart makes more noise” – those who talk a lot lack substance. In Japan “The protruding nail gets hammered down,” so conform and you won’t get hurt.

Members of a global team reporting to a British executive complained that they couldn’t “read” him. Even after decades in Malaysia, his communication style is highly indirect. He would say “perhaps” or “we might want to consider” and his direct reports couldn’t decode his meaning. It is therefore more appropriate for him to speak in a more definitive manner.

In another instance, senior management of a Japanese services company had to manage a new non-Japanese workforce. In Japanese work culture, an individual’s aspirations are best curbed for the greater good of the team. This group of senior management had to be convinced to work counter-culture: not to just focus on the group’s accomplishments, but to also highlight individual achievements.

Non-verbal communication is another area where you need to understand context to understand meaning.

A smile is not universal. For us here in Asia, a smile can signal embarrassment or humiliation. In France, it might signal flirtation.

Asian communication style is generally high-context, collectivist cultures; there is a great deal of ritual, much of it around protecting “face”. Age, gender, and rank are important issues, and formality cues behaviour.

There was an instance of a young South Korean whose American manager thrust her into an informal meeting with a group of high-ranking executives without preparing her. The woman was uncomfortable and quiet because she was unaccustomed to the informal introductions and seating arrangements, which left her without cues as to where she fitted in and how to interact. The manager needed to understand that he had not only hired a talented woman, he had also hired a culture.

For those who are not familiar with communicating with Americans, do not be caught off guard by their friendliness. Like peaches, they have a soft, fuzzy, easily penetrable exterior but it is possible for you to break a tooth on the pit. Europeans, on the other hand, may be hard to crack, like coconuts, but the reward can be sweet.

Article by Mastura Diana Jaffar, director at The Ayers Group.