How to handle cultural misunderstandings at work

Even the most diverse and modern of multicultural teams can face misunderstandings and friction, despite the best intentions of staff and leaders.

Cultural misunderstandings can limit work productivity, but there are ways for multicultural teams to avoid culture shock.

At a glance

  • Even the most forward thinking and diverse organisations can experience culture related misunderstandings.
  • Understanding the difference between diversity and inclusion is an important first step to a cohesive workplace.
  • Some members of multicultural teams risk being sidelined by “groupthink” or if rules and structure have been designed by a majority group.

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By Johanna Leggatt

Many employees are rightly proud of their diverse workplaces, which, with their melting pot of cultural backgrounds, have come a long way from the monocultures of decades past.

However, even the most diverse and modern of multicultural teams can face misunderstandings and friction, despite the best intentions of staff and leaders.

As Lisa Annese, CEO of Diversity Council Australia (DCA), points out, there is a difference between a diverse workplace and an inclusive workspace.

“If you have a diverse workplace, but you don’t focus on the inclusion side, then you may not have the most cohesive workplace and there may be conflict,” Annese says.

Business coach Gaiti Rabbani, founder of Rabbani Collective and author of Curious About Culture, couldn’t agree more.

“I think a lot of organisations are great at ticking that box on diversity because it’s measurable, so it’s really easy to do,” Rabbani says.

“But inclusion is a feeling, a sense of belonging, and that’s not a box you can merely tick.”

The good news is that most people value diversity, with a 2019 DCA study showing that three out of four Australian workers support or strongly support their organisation acting to create a workplace that is both diverse and inclusive.

Potential flash points

Rabbani uses the 10 cultural values defined by the US Cultural Intelligence Center as a framework when working with organisations keen to identify cultural differences in work styles.

“Some people are more direct communicators and like to get to the point, whereas other people are driven by more indirect preferences and may not be as confrontational,” she says.

Rabbani notes that indirect communicators prefer to “save face”, where it is important not to shame other people.

“Which points to another value based around authority,” she says. “Some employees come from egalitarian societies, while others prefer hierarchy and will struggle to speak up in a team meeting.”

Discord can also arise when people from competitive and collaborative cultures cross swords.

For example, a lot of US and European business is structured around competitiveness and directness, Rabbani says, and “many of these workers will start a meeting and get straight down to business”.

“Whereas collaborative cultures are very focused on relationships, so they would prefer to open that conversation with, ‘How was your weekend?’, ‘How are you going?’, and then move on to business,” she says.

Both are valid ways of approaching goals, Rabbani notes, “and we need to cater to both”.

Annese adds that cultural tensions often come to the fore if someone is from a background in which introversion is the norm. “That can, however, be interpreted by leadership in Australia as someone who’s not confident, someone who is not a go-getter,” she says.

This tendency to hold back may, Annese notes, lead to some workers from different cultural backgrounds deemed unfairly to be “not leadership material”.

CPA Library resource: Culture shock: a handbook for 21st Century business. Read now.

Fear of difference

“Often, the minute somebody steps outside of what we deem to be “normal” social behaviour, it looks like they are being difficult or rude,” Rabbani says.

This can inhibit employee engagement and motivation.

“There can be ‘group think’ in organisations as well, a sort of ‘this is how we do things here, get on board and come with us’,” she says.

Annese says members in multicultural teams are sidelined when the rules and the structure of the organisation have been designed by a majority group, who are also often in charge, while the people who are culturally and linguistically diverse are exceptions to that group.

Annese says this disconnect can harm productivity and engagement. High-performing multicultural teams, on the other hand, score highly on key workplace indicators, such as innovation, creativity and engagement.

“Of course, there are manifold benefits to the bottom line as well when organisations are genuinely inclusive.”

Road to inclusiveness

According to Rabbani, one of the first steps in resolving culturally induced tensions is to become aware of our own cultural lens.

“Start to identify what those cultural nuances are in the organisation in a very safe, non-judgemental way, because whether you are expressive or not expressive, neither is right nor wrong,” she says.

“It also starts with active listening and asking how you can best motivate the people around you.”

Annese says that, in order to be inclusive, leaders must move from a fixed mindset to one that is open and curious about other people.

“Be aware that people have different worldviews, and those worldviews and personal attributes have been shaped by their identity, their experience and a multitude of things,” she says.

A great example of staying open-minded would be not jumping to conclusions if an employee does not put their hand up in a meeting.

“They might come from a culture where it’s offensive to put your hand up, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious,” she says.

Finally, Annese recommends making sure your workplace procedures reflect the multicultural and inclusive nature of your office, including recruitment processes, “because they probably were designed in a time when your workplace was more homogenous”.

December/January 2022
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